The Church, Its Nature, Structure, and Function
J. W. C. Wand
Hodder & Stoughton, 1949
The Frederick Denison Maurice Lectures for 1947
John Frederick Denison Maurice was born in 1805. The son of a Unitarian minister, he refused, after reading for a degree at Cambridge, to make the declaration of membership in the Church of England which would have led to a fellowship. Later, however, he was converted to Anglicanism, took a degree at Oxford and was ordained. In 1836 he became Chaplain of Guy’s Hospital and found time to write his great book The Kingdom of Christ or “Hints to a Quaker Concerning the Principles, Conceptions and Ordinances of the Catholic Church.” Later he became Professor, first of English Literature, and then of Theology, at King’s College, London, where this series of lectures was afterwards founded in his honour.
He took a lead in the Christian Social Movement associated with the names of Charles Kingsley and Tom Hughes, and for that and for his theological opinions suffered considerable persecution. Nevertheless, he helped to found the Working Men’s College, of which he became principal in 1854. In 1866 he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge and showed some resentment at being called a Broad Churchman. Indeed, he would have resented any label, but perhaps that of Liberal Catholic would describe him best. He died in 1872.
1. The Nature of the Church
Maurice’s theology – our sentimentality – History – prior to Christianity – the New Israel – the Kingdom – the Church – Marks – not static but dynamic – Body of Christ – instrument of personality – One, the instrument of Unity – Holy, the school of character – Catholic, the ark of salvation – Apostolic, identity of being and commission.
2. The Structure of the Church
Necessity – prior to the local community – constitution of membership – Jew and Gentile – rites of initiation and membership – the ministry – source – the Apostle in Judaism and Christianity – the deacon and The Seven – the elder and his functions – the bishop and his origin – relation to Apostle and elder – evidences of Moses’ seat – the fact of succession and its contents – the three orders primitive.
3. The Function of the Church
Continuation of Christ’s apostolate – a society not solitary – the mediation of God’s Friendship – revelation and redemption – ministry of Word – the spirit of Scripture – absolute truth – the conscience of mankind – ministry of the sacraments – incorporation into Christ – partakers of divine nature – ethico-mystical religion – centrality of sacramental idea – modern application – education as research and instruction – sacraments as universal and social – the Kingdom of God – relation to Church and society – meaning of Christian civilization – to be established by political party, pressure group, or Church? – reaffirmation of dynamic character.
1. – The Nature of the Church
Few things could have given me more pleasure than an invitation to lecture on a foundation connected with the name of Frederick Denison Maurice. He is a teacher for whom I have had a veneration ever since I began seriously to study theology, and I well remember an illuminating incident which quickened my interest as an undergraduate. The Vice-Principal of the College was preaching a series of sermons on Sunday evenings to illustrate different types of Churchmanship. When he came to the occasion that should have been devoted to an evangelical leader, the preacher apologized for the absence of a sermon that evening, saying that he had intended to take, as his typical evangelical, Frederick Denison Maurice, but had discovered on re-reading him that he was as Catholic in his theology as the hero of that particular school whom he had already described to us.
The fact is that Maurice was a teacher of that comprehensive type which cannot be limited within party boundaries. He was like St. Paul or St. Augustine, thinkers from whom varied and almost contradictory schools may derive their origin. The fact that each divergent school can claim the same origin in all good faith is a sufficient indication that none of them has succeeded in grasping entire the thought of the master.
I am not suggesting, of course, that Maurice’s theology was like that of St. Paul or St. Augustine. He himself belongs much more to the Johannine type. His system of thought was essentially incarnational, like that of his contemporary, Westcott. For him, the eternal Word of God, who was incarnate at Bethlehem, could be born again in the human heart, in a sacrament, and in society. To him, indeed, the whole universe was sacramental, and the duty of Christians was to make all outward and visible things more and more strongly evidential of the divine grace and power within. As I am myself a humble follower of that particular line of thought you can understand the special pleasure I have in speaking on this foundation.
There is a further reason why the point of contact between Maurice and ourselves should be of more than usual interest at the present time. Maurice developed his own theology against the background of Unitarianism and Quakerism. In his two-volume work on the Kingdom of Christ it is specifically a Quaker whom he is trying to convince. Although the Society of Friends is still a very small body, it excites a great deal of admiration among us because of its devotion to charitable works. For that reason, it is still a power in the land. But its theological standpoint is as grave a danger today as it was when Maurice wrote, precisely because of its wholehearted rejection of the outward forms and signs of religious observance. Our outstanding modern heresy is to regard religion as a sentiment. If a Gallup Poll could be taken of the population of England, I feel sure that ninety per cent of the people would write themselves down as Christians. But it has become a matter of common observation that a comparatively small proportion of them fulfills regularly the obligations of any religious organization. That is not so hypocritical as it may seem at first sight, because of this major premise which exists, even though inarticulate, in all their thinking about religion, namely, that Christianity is a kind of feeling, and that as long as you have that feeling observances of any sort are virtually unnecessary.
This point of view has been strengthened by the differences of Christian people about the right sort of observances and by divisions in the ecclesiastical organization itself. In the midst of such doubts and controversies, it has been easy for the layman to say, “A plague on all your houses,” and to sink back into the last possible defensive position which he can hold against attacks by any of them. This he believes to be the ultimate residuum of Christianity common to all. The time has come when Christian theologians of every school must unite to attack this position and drive the layman out into the open again, make him realise that some observances are necessary, and leave him no rest until he has decided for himself between rival claims. In other words, we must do for the people as a whole what Maurice did for his Quaker friends and must make them face the challenge of the whole Christian tradition with regard to the external elements of religion.
The need is urgent, because if we cannot undertake the task we shall find our people slipping into an entirely irreligious frame of mind. Man’s life is not made up of sentiments alone. We are composed of body as well as soul, and the two continuously act and react upon each other. For that reason, formal rites are necessary in religion. It is true, of course, that an undue stress upon the outward and visible may lead to pure formalism. But it is equally true that without the material body the soul cannot maintain itself in being within the conditions of space and time. A shell without a kernel is a mere husk, but without the protective shell the kernel itself cannot come to maturity. Religion may be the most spiritual of all concerns but within the sphere of material existence it must have its mechanistic element.
That is a truth which we must face without flinching, even though our contemporaries for the most part are inclined to regard it as something akin to blasphemy. It is, therefore, of first-rate importance to make them face the issue and come to some deliberate and reasoned conclusion. At present, they are only too ready to sit on the fence; we must make them come down on one side or the other. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin, and that applies as strongly to those who do too little as to those who do too much. We must see that for the sake of their own wellbeing, in this world and the next, they realise the necessity both of wholehearted belief and of readiness to translate it into practice.
The sphere in which this attempt may best be undertaken is the doctrine of the Church. It is significant that it was with this doctrine that Maurice was principally concerned in the book I have mentioned. [Kingdom of Christ.] The instructions given to the lecturer on this foundation are that he must deal either with some part of Maurice’s direct teaching or with some point in which he was specially interested. I therefore feel that I am acting in complete harmony with the terms of the lectureship if I ask you to consider with me the nature, structure, and function of the Church. Each of these lectures will deal with one of the three points. On this occasion, we shall proceed to a consideration of the Church’s nature.
It is important to realize at the outset that the Church is prior to Christianity. We are accustomed to teach children that the first Whitsun Day was the birthday of the Church, and there is a sense in which that is true. But the adult should realize that there was a Church in the Old Testament as well as in the New. The fact is that the idea of a Church goes back to the beginning of revealed religion. It has its origin in the covenant that God made with Abraham. In Abraham’s descendants, all the nations of the earth were to be blessed, and that blessing was to come to the nations through the seed of Abraham. The descendants of the Patriarch were the people of Israel. They were a holy people, chosen by God to be the instrument of His dealings with all the sons of men. The original Church was thus the people of Israel, because they were “called out”; they were an ecclesia, a sacred assembly living according to the revealed Will of God and in every phase of their life proclaiming His purpose to mankind.
The history of Israel is to a large extent the story of their failure to respond to this call. That failure was realized most strongly by the prophets. They, however, never abandoned the idea that the whole nation was a kingdom under God’s special rule and guidance. While they did recognize that the bulk of the nation had proved false to that guidance and had betrayed the divine King, they asserted that this betrayal was not characteristic of the whole nation, and they devised the doctrine of a “remnant” who, through their deliberately accepted sufferings, would atone for the faults of the nation as a whole and would form the nucleus of a new Messianic kingdom in which the rule of God over all His people would be visibly restored.
In the Gospels, we see how Jesus accepted this teaching and applied it to Himself. He linked the teaching regarding the “Suffering Servant” with that of the Messianic kingdom and taught that both were fulfilled in His own person. He announced to His contemporaries that in Him the Kingdom of God had come upon them, and He called them to align themselves with Him and so enter into the Kingdom. He affirmed that acceptance of Himself as the Messiah was the rock upon which the Church would in future be built. This teaching is easily recognizable as a continuation of the doctrine of the remnant. His own followers were few in number, but it was hoped that they would extend their influence so that there would be in effect a new Israel, a new Kingdom, and a new Church.
The relation between the three is somewhat obscure. It is not clear that they were completely identified in the teaching of our Lord. The New Israel may be regarded as the most nationalistic element in the composite picture. The question whether it would come to comprise the whole nation would not be decided in the period covered by the earthly life of the Lord. He Himself was rejected, but the real issue was not decided till after His Ascension.
The idea of the Kingdom has proved notoriously difficult to analyse. Maurice seems to have regarded it as completely identical with the Church, a point on which I shall venture to disagree with him. We may notice here that there is always in it a sense of futurity. Schweitzer, indeed, in his famous apocalyptic theory suggested that in the mind of Jesus it was expected to burst upon the world in supernatural glory in the very near future and that it would be ushered in by His own self-sacrifice and death. Some of our English theologians have reacted so violently against that theory that they have evolved an alternative in what is called “realized eschatology”, that is to say, that in the thought of Jesus the end is realized in the here and now and the Kingdom is already present in His own person. The fact is that in our Lord’s teaching as recorded in the Gospels there are suggestions both that the Kingdom has already begun and that it is still to be fulfilled in the future. In all probability, therefore, the truth must lie somewhere between the two theories just mentioned. The Kingdom begins in and with Jesus, who is the promised Messiah, but its ultimate dénouement awaits the end of history. The dawn has already appeared, and it will shine more and more unto the perfect day; but the perfect day will not be seen until time merges into eternity.
In the idea of the Church I can find no such definitely futuristic element. Indeed, perhaps naturally, there is very little about it in the Gospels. Jesus, of course, lived as a devoted son of the Jewish Church. He identified Himself with the reform inaugurated by John the Baptist and seems to have regarded His own work as a continuation of that reform. What He aimed at was to inaugurate a new phase within the life of the Church. His disciples appear to have carried on the custom of Baptism, by which those who accepted the reform signified their own association with it. That association was gradually seen to involve acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. As we have already pointed out, it was upon such acceptance that the new phase of the Church’s existence was to be built. The implication of all this in the light of the immediately subsequent events was worked out by the Apostles after their Lord’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension; and the resultant doctrine was elucidated particularly by St. Paul.
The first important stage occurred on the Day of Pentecost when the several Apostles were made conscious of an illapse of the Holy Spirit. This confirmed them in their consciousness that they were indeed the New Israel and the faithful remnant which was the recipient of God’s promise to the nation. God had promised the gift of His Spirit to His faithful people, and they knew beyond any manner of doubt that they had received that Spirit. They could feel it in the new creative energy that took possession of them all, transforming them from the condition of fugitives lurking in the back streets of Jerusalem into a company of stalwart men prepared to face the multitudes and incur the wrath of the religious leaders and the repressive measures of an alien government in order to carry on the work that God had committed to the chosen nation.
The second stage occurred when it became clear that the bulk of the nation was not going to respond to this teaching while certain elements of the Gentiles were prepared to do so. The great decision was taken in the Council of Jerusalem as described in Acts 15 when it was agreed to abandon the most distinctive of ancient Jewish observances as no longer necessary for Gentiles who wished to identify themselves with the New Israel. The abandonment of circumcision and the retention of Baptism in the name of Jesus did more than anything else to distinguish the Christian Church from the old Jewish organization and to make clear that here was a separate organism with a life and destiny of its own.
The third stage was reached when St. Paul worked out a doctrine of the Church, explaining its character as no mere organization but a definite organism, into the life of which each new member was introduced in such a way that he himself became a partaker of it. That life was nothing less than the life and energy of the Holy Spirit, who was the Spirit of Christ and of God. The new organism Paul regards as the fulfillment of the whole history of society up to that time. In it all barriers, such as those that had divided through the centuries Jew from Gentile, were broken down. Within this society, all people of whatever race, colour, or tongue, were made one, because they had become members of Christ and thus shared in the unity of His person. The Church was thus seen to be both the consummation of history and also the producer of individual spiritual life. In it the single person and the whole of humanity achieved the destined end of their being. Thus the idea of the Christian Church as an independent entity was fully launched.
It has seemed necessary to run through this account of the genesis of the idea of the Church because it is against the background of such a history that we can best discuss its nature. That we shall now proceed to do under the heading of the four traditional Notes or Marks of the Church. But we wear our rue with a difference. Usually, when one says that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, one conceives the Church as a static organization and proceeds to analyse it as if it were a specimen on the dissecting table. As a result, we lose the essential quality of it, which is life itself.
Thus, if we speak of the Unity of the Church, the analyst goes off into a consideration of the Branch Theory or something of that kind; if the Holiness of the Church is under consideration, he thinks of past manifestations of saintliness; if Catholicity, he emphasizes the strict limits of membership and orthodoxy, and if Apostolicity, he becomes lost in the mazes of the historic past.
What we shall try to do in this lecture is to see that these Notes or Marks are not the dry-as-dust elements of a museum specimen, but that they are actually signs of life. We shall try to catch a glimpse of their forceful dynamic quality.
The first characteristic of the Church is its unity. This is to be seen from the pregnant analogy of St. Paul, who describes the Church as the Body of Christ. It might be said that he uses other similes also, at one time describing Christ as the Head of the Church, and elsewhere speaking of the Church as His bride. Sometimes, again, the Church is described as a building with Christ as the cornerstone. But always we come back to the metaphor of the body.
It can be seen, then, that, as we have just said, the Church’s unity is not that of an organization but of an organism. The Church, of course, is an organization in that it consists of a number of people living under a certain management and conducting their common interests in an ordered and regular way. But the Church is much more than its organization. There is also the vital energy that keeps it alive. The Church is a living, growing thing, and it is that because the life of Christ is in it. Consequently, when St. Paul speaks of the relation between Christ and believers, he does not suggest that they are parts of a piece of machinery, just cogs in a wheel, but he says they are limbs, the members of a live body. They are to the Eternal what his own right hand is to a man.
St. Paul evidently regards the Church as a body in the sense that it is the expression of a personality. A body is the instrument through which an individual acts. In a material universe, it is the necessary means of his self-expression. That is the nature of the Church; it is the instrument of Christ’s personality. As from B.C. 4 to A.D. 29, the Eternal Word of God revealed Himself upon earth through the human nature He had taken to Himself, manifesting His personal characteristics in space and time by means of a body like that which other human beings used, so through all the subsequent ages He has expressed Himself in and through the Christian Church. That is His Body through which He still acts in space and time, through which His personality may carry out its intended work under the conditions of a material world.
All this may be expressed by saying that the Church is an extension of the Incarnation. The phrase is more generally used of the sacraments, but the Church itself is thoroughly sacramental. It is an inward and spiritual life expressing itself through outward, visible means. By it the work of the Incarnation is still carried on. It is almost (dangerous as the phrase must sound) a secondary incarnation. As the Eternal Word once took flesh, so the God-made man takes this age-old social organ and lives and works upon earth in it and by means of it.
Sometimes the awkwardness of apparently suggesting a double incarnation of Christ is avoided by saying that the Church is really the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. There is a sense of course in which this is true, because it is the Holy Spirit, immanent in the Church, who sanctifies and vitalizes its members and its sacraments. But to speak of an Incarnation of the Holy Spirit might suggest a rival to the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. Therefore, the phrase is no more acceptable to theologians than that implying a secondary Incarnation of Christ. In point of fact, the persons of the God-head are so closely united that it is not always easy to delimit the work which may be thought of as being performed by each.
Father Hebert has recently made a helpful suggestion in saying that Christ is the “form” of the Church while the Holy Spirit is its life. We can see what he means by a form if we accept Aristotle’s definition of it as “that which makes a thing to be what it is.” In the case of an organism, the form is the living impulse which enables the embryo to attain the mature perfection of the full-grown entity. It is that which makes the acorn pursue a certain line of development until it becomes an oak. This impulse may be presumed to be something different from the vital principle itself which is common to every living thing and without which the form cannot enable the organism to attain its end. We may say, then, that the Church is the extension of the Incarnation and that Christ is its form, while still holding that the Holy Spirit supplies its vital energy. After all, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ; so we cannot expect to be too clear about what belongs to one and what to the other. It is sufficient for us to know that the Church is the Body of Christ and that it is energized by His Spirit.
We are now in a position to see what St. Paul meant when he said that those who are baptized into Christ are “grafted” into Him. When we are made members of His Body, His life flows through us just as the sap of the new twig and of the tree into which it is grafted mingle together. This is the essential meaning of Christianity. It is incorporation into Christ. Christianity is not a sentiment; it is not a mere system of beliefs; it is not just a code of conduct; it is not a mechanical organization. It is to be incorporated into Christ, to be made a member of His Body, and so to be filled with His life. Christianity is a life and that life is Christ.
This idea, of course, is something quite different from what the vast bulk of society means when it talks about being Christian. But really the idea is quite fundamental. To be a Christian is much more than to be good or to attend Church or to believe; all these things have their places in a complete Christian life; but the basis of that life is to be incorporated into Christ and to have His life running through one’s veins. That is the beginning. It is to be born again, to be a new creation. And from that everything else should follow.
From the point of view of the nature of the Church, we have to realize that this incorporation into Christ (and our consequent share in His life) is the basis of the Church’s unity. He is one person, and as we are made limbs of His Body we are knit into that unity, and the unity of that body is retained even while it grows and develops. This reveals the dynamic quality of Christian unity. It is not a mere arithmetical number. It is a living, developing unity. Indeed, the Church actually makes unity, because it takes those who are adopted into sonship by God and makes them one with Him and with each other in Him. And this it does, not by imposing upon men something foreign to their nature, but by evoking that which belongs to their true nature. It is not unity but disunity which is the intruder into human society.
This is what St. Paul saw when he developed his philosophy of history as the story of unity. He believed that the whole course of creation had been working up to this most critical moment. Christ, by His death upon the Cross, had broken every barrier down, not only the barrier between God and man, but also the many barriers between man and man. Race, language, religion, politics, class, sex: all were down. There was neither bond nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Barbarian, but all were one in Christ and in God.
The Christian is thus in a very different position from the politician. The politician who wants to secure unity is all the time trying to create something which is not already there. The Christian, on the other hand, is trying to bring out something which is already there. Christian oneness is already to be found in Christ. Everyone who joins Him is bound into that unity, of whatever race or time or country he may be. There is, in other words, among Christians an essential unity, a unity of being, which nothing can break so long as they remain in Christ.
This of course does not mean that Christians all have the same views about every question. We are told to be of one mind, but not necessarily one opinion. We may sometimes agree to differ. To be of one mind implies to have the same purpose or intention. We all want to live the life of Christ. That involves all having that unity of mind which comes of the effort to attain a common purpose. But we may have different opinions about the way in which it should be done. Even so, as Christians we shall still preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, agreeing to differ until the Holy Spirit resolves our doubts and grants us clearer vision.
It may be asked, why then, in that case, there should be such obvious disunion among Christian people. The answer is that the Church is both human and divine. Divisions there are, but they remain on the human level and cannot penetrate to the deep underlying unity. This is our ground of confidence in the present and of hope for the future. We are quite sure that the Spirit will lead us one day into obvious and open fellowship. “I am the vine,” said our Lord, “and ye are the branches.” We know that the life of Christ is so deeply rooted that it will spread ultimately to the farthest tendril of the tree. In the meantime, we do what we can to preserve our own unity, believing that it is as the branch remains part of the vine that it can receive its proper supply of living energy. In any case, the living unity of the Church arises from the unity of Christ. Where there are any wounds in the body, His free-flowing life will ultimately heal them, as nature hastens to heal any trauma of the flesh. This is what it means to be a member of the Beloved Society and to be caught up into the unity of the Church.
The Church’s mark of holiness is also based on Christ, who with His Spirit is both its form and its life. Therefore, as He is holy, the Church must be holy. But there are different senses in which the word can be used. It may mean little more than “consecrated,” that is to say, set apart for the service of God. Christ was certainly that. ‘I am come to do thy will, O my God, I am content to do it. Yea, thy Law is within my heart.” In this type of consecration, those incorporated into Him necessarily join. Every baptized Christian shares in the holiness of the Church, because in his Baptism he has been set aside and dedicated to God. That, of course, is the primary meaning of the word saint; and all members of the Church share in that characteristic, being all alike “saints,” or dedicated persons.
This is important not merely as a piece of theology but from the sociological point of view. It is not merely that noblesse oblige, and that all those who bear this mark must justify it by a specialized manner of life in the world, but also that this knowledge of the holiness of the Church and our share in it fills the whole world with an atmosphere of worshipful reverence. The attitude of worship transforms the universe and gives it a radiance and a beauty that it can hardly wear for others who do not share this knowledge. The part sanctifies the whole. “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” The sacredness of the Church gives a potential sacredness to all society and all creation. This is the spirit in which the Christian sets about the adventure of life. He acquires a worshipping attitude in church and so becomes a hierophant of holy mysteries wherever he walks and works.
That, of course, is not the only meaning of holy. From its very sense of something set apart for God, the word comes to mean something which partakes of moral goodness. As God is good those associated with Him must be good. The Church as the Body of Christ is holy because it shares in Christ’s goodness. That goodness is available for all who will make it their own. It is already potentially within us by virtue of our incorporation into Christ. The Christian does not have to reach out beyond himself when he desires to cultivate some virtue, forever chasing a will-o’-the-wisp which forever eludes his grasp. He grows from within outwards. Christ with all His beauty, strength, and tenderness is resident within the inmost core of his being, and it is for him to let Christ express Himself in his every word and thought and action. “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree,” and the palm tree grows not by adding an outer circle to its trunk every year but by allowing its inner core to expand from within outwards and upwards.
The salient feature of this Christian holiness is precisely its identification with Christ. Philosophical lectures on ethics may enumerate for our clarification the same virtues as those that are proclaimed in the New Testament and from the pulpit, but the difference will lie in the source to which the hearer is directed for power to put them into practice. Long ago, St. Paul and the early Christian teachers used to discourse on virtue in very much the same way as their Jewish and pagan contemporaries. We have their lecture notes in those moral codes which form so important a part of the Epistles. But there was one point in which the Christian teachers differed from their colleagues, and that was in their use of the phrase “in Christ.” A man was to love his wife “in Christ,” children were to obey their parents “in the Lord,” slaves were to serve their masters, and masters were to protect their slaves “in Christ.” That made all the difference. It not only raised the quality of the virtue to the highest degree but it also pointed to the power by which it might be attained.
All this is not to say that the virtues thus inculcated are in fact already attained. As we have said, the Church is both human and divine. We carry our treasure in earthen vessels. Humanity is frail and it does not always use the power bestowed upon it. Are we then, in order to maintain the holiness of the Church, to un-Church those who fail to reach the highest level of conduct? Can we summarily dismiss those who have fallen? The question was discussed long ago, and the point has often been raised since. But already in the heat of the Donatist controversy in Northern Africa during the fourth century it was decided that the Church was not a museum for saints but a school for sinners. The holiness of the Church consists not in the present moral goodness of its members but in the guarantee that they will one day be raised to the height where they give natural expression to the goodness of that life of Christ which is in them.
It has been said that the Christian Church is the greatest school of character the world has ever seen. That is true. As its members are assimilated more and more completely into the life of Christ, their characters are drawn nearer and nearer towards that perfection to which Jesus has summoned us all. The Church works upon us whether we are reprobate or respectable, whether we have failed in much or in little, whether our sins are known only to ourselves or whether they cry aloud to heaven. If we submit ourselves to its influence, we shall find the evidence of new life displaying itself in us more and more completely until we shall be able to say “It is no longer I that live but Christ that liveth in me.”
And in this educative process, the Church is performing the most essential function of human life. For the very purpose for which God has created this world and placed us in it is that we may acquire the kind of character that will enable us to share with Him that eternity of bliss which He has promised to His children. This world is not an end in itself nor is it simply a waiting-room where we remain idle until something comes along to carry us to our goal. It is rather a training school where we are put through just those experiences which are necessary for the perfecting of our characters. It is in the body of Christ, in contact with His life and infused with His vital energy, that we shall be able to make the most of those experiences, to acquire the necessary character, and so to justify the holiness of the Church.
A third mark of the Church is to be catholic, that is to say, universal, world-wide. This characteristic, too, it derives from Christ, for He also is universal. There is a passage in the Epistle to the Ephesians [1:22, 23.] where St. Paul describes Christ as the victor over all the world and tells that God put all things into subjection under His feet and gave Him to be head over all things in the Church which is His body, “the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” It has been ruled by Armitage Robinson and others that the correct translation of the latter phrase should be “the fulfillment of Him who all in all is being fulfilled.” I have myself ventured to translate the whole passage thus: “In so exalting Christ He has made Him a head of a body, the Church. That body provides a universal means of expression for one who is Himself a universal personality.” [Wand, New Testament Letters, p. 114.] Whether Christ fills all things or is fulfilled by all things, the implication is still that He has a universal relation to the whole of existence. He is the agent indeed by whom the world came into being and He is the goal to which all existence ultimately leads. He is then catholic in the fullest sense, and the Church as His body is an expression of His catholicity.
There is a subsidiary sense in which the term “catholicity” refers not so much to the extended universe as to universal truth. In this sense, too, Jesus is the source of the Church’s catholicity. Christ indeed is the way, the truth, and the life; all truth leads to Him and all truth is summed up in Him. As the Church is His agent in disseminating truth, in this respect also it is catholic. This does not mean that the Church is in possession of all scientific truth, but it does mean that it has all that truth which is necessary for salvation. In other words it is the recipient of Christ’s revelation. The term “Catholic” is used in this regard both positively and negatively. It affirms the possession of saving truth but it warns against any unjustifiable claim to the exclusive possession of such truth by other bodies. In other words, the term “Catholic” distinguishes what is sometimes known to historians as the Great Church from certain minor bodies who quarrelled with it for some reason or other and attempted to usurp to themselves the title of Catholic.
This distinction is a terrible and regrettable necessity. After all we have said about the unity of the Church, even though we have admitted that owing to human infirmity that unity may be superficially broken, it is still a shock to know that the very term describing the comprehensiveness of the Church must be used in a limiting sense. We seem far removed from the spirit of the New Testament where such disunion is hardly even contemplated. But even there we find that there were individuals who from time to time had to be excommunicated. If it comes to that, the very existence of the Christian Church as a distinct entity had only come about through division from the parent Church of Judaism. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” We must not, therefore, allow ourselves to be too cast down, as if division meant the end of the Church, but we must remember that just because the Church is Catholic it will be continually endeavouring to embrace within its fold all those, from whatever quarter, who call upon the Name of the Lord.
So the term “Catholic” is used not in a static but in a dynamic sense. Like the other Notes of the Church, it is an affirmation of a living quality. As all lands must be brought within the ministrations of the Church and all individuals must be brought within the sphere of its evangelism, so all truth must be baptized into Christ. Every fresh accession of scientific knowledge must be weaned from its secular environment and shown in its relation to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While the Church is truly Catholic in its potentiality, it cannot be fully Catholic until we know even as we are known. This dynamic quality of Catholicity enables us to address ourselves with patience to the task of resolving our differences and endeavouring to heal our disunion.
The fact is that divisions in the Church are an extraneous feature, something quite foreign to the original conception of the Church and, so far as one can judge, not contemplated in its early years. By divisions, of course, in this sense, one means separations amounting to schisms. That there would be differences of opinion and quarrels was only too obvious from the start, but it always seems to have been expected that these differences would yield to treatment or could be isolated in one or two disaffected persons. It never seems to have been regarded as possible that the Church should be actually rent asunder.
The reason for this feeling of security may have been that the necessity for the Church was too clear to the people of the early generations. The idea that one could be a Christian without being a member of the Church was not then under consideration. The terms “Church” and “Christian” were, as Dr. Mackintosh has said, regarded as correlative. “You could no more be a Christian without a Church than you could be a citizen without a city.” The Church, therefore, was an essential and inevitable part of Christianity. In that sense it is quite possible to justify the much reviled saying of St. Cyprian: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the Church there could be no safety and no salvation. Into it as into the Ark were gathered all who wished to be protected from the floods and storms of sin and temptation.
It was, then, very necessary to recognize that the Church was the same whether in Palestine or Egypt or Greece or in any other part of the world. Individual congregations might differ, but they all belonged to the one essential organization. They were kept in touch with each other at first by the Apostles and other evangelists. We know that there was very considerable intercommunication. The letters of St. Paul show how closely he kept in touch with the Churches of his own foundation, and the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians show how his letters were handed round from one church to another. In the same way, the letters of St. John reveal the care with which hospitality was exercised towards travelling apostles and evangelists. St. John even has to complain that a too-discriminating care was exercised to the disadvantage of some of his own friends. But the interest he takes in the proper use of hospitality shows how important it must have been in illustrating and symbolizing the catholicity of the Church.
Later, intercommunication became the responsibility of the bishop; he acted as the correspondent for the local church and wrote sometimes in its name to other churches. Thus Clement writes in the name of the Church in Rome. At other times, the bishop, like the Apostles, would write in his own name; but he would do it with full authority, knowing that he had definite responsibility for maintaining the local churches in the closest contact with each other. This can be seen very clearly in the Epistles of St. Ignatius.
By these ways and methods, the corrosive influence of self-will and disaffection was circumvented and the Catholic Church was maintained intact. In these days, of course, we have our own peculiar problems. We are born into a world where it is scarcely obvious that there is one Catholic Church. The 680 million Christians are divided under different allegiances which have no communion with each other although their basic beliefs are the same. We cannot be satisfied with this state of things. The distinctive feature of Church history during the present century has been its effort to restore something like a primitive catholicity. A half century of negotiation has taken us a considerable distance on our way. Already some of the more nearly similar groups have amalgamated. Tentative approaches towards intercommunion have been made by some of the larger and more dissimilar. There are, of course, many difficulties and we shall receive many set-backs still. It is especially necessary to ensure that the particular contribution which each independent society has to make as a result of its own individual experience should be brought in to enrich the life of the whole in the restored Catholic Church. If catholicity applies not only to universality of space but to comprehensiveness of doctrine, there must be room within it for every element of genuine Christian experience.
The importance of the note of apostolicity is that it implies historical continuity with Jesus Himself. He was the Apostle par excellence. He regards Himself as sent by God to be the Father’s plenipotentiary here upon earth. “I come to do thy will, O my God.” “This is the Father’s will which hath sent me.” As He was Himself the Apostle so He had the right to send other apostles. “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” We shall be dealing in another lecture with the importance of the Apostles in the structure of the Church; what we are concerned with at the moment is their importance in preserving its identity. They, as we know, appointed other officers. And so there was an obvious continuity in the life of the organization.
In the early days, this had quite certain importance and significance. If people wished to know in the midst of all the competing religions of the day which was the Christian Church, they could judge at once by discovering whether the local body concerned belonged to this Apostolic organization. It was quite obvious which teachers claimed to be members of the Apostolic foundation and which did not. Later, of course, the test was not so easy of application. After a number of generations had passed, various teachers arose to proclaim fresh doctrines. Some of them even said that they had received their information through a secret tradition from the Apostles. The test then was precisely this test of continuity. Could these teachers claim to be in the line of apostolic descent? Irenaeus, who is particularly emphatic upon the use of this test, makes it clear that the best guarantee of the genuineness of the teaching is that it comes from an organization whose ministers can trace their succession direct to the Apostles.
This was extremely important while the age of the Apostles was not too far distant. It may be said that it has nothing like the same importance today, when many centuries have intervened to exercise their baneful influence upon the development of Christian doctrine. If it is possible for us in the light of modern scholarship to get back to the documents in which the apostolic teaching was originally enshrined, can we not find in a critical examination of those writings a more reliable guide than is guaranteed by any mere succession? If you compare the three main claims to the apostolic succession, the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican, to say nothing of the Swedish, you will find in some instances definite differences of doctrine, and in others differences of emphasis which almost amount to differences of doctrine. If continuity has not prevented such changes, is there any value at all in the view that continuity is a guarantee of orthodoxy?
There is much force in this objection. Nevertheless, I should be sorry to surrender the argument from continuity completely. In spite of the corruptions that have crept in, it would probably be true to say that more of the basic Christian doctrines have been retained in the historic Churches than elsewhere. It would certainly be true to say that the historic Churches have acted as strong defensive positions against attacks from rationalism and secularism. It is probable that many of the post-Reformation bodies have benefited from the defence set up by their older colleagues, and to a large extent enjoy their own Christianity by grace of the protection thus afforded them.
But, of course, this argument applies to much more than identity of doctrine. If Christianity is a life and if that life is manifested in an organism, it is of first-rate importance that the identity of the organism shall be preserved. This does not mean that there can be no change, but that through all changes it must remain the same. A human body preserves its identity although its individual cells are changing with great rapidity. So it is in the Christian Church. Here we have an organism whose form is Christ and whose life is the Holy Spirit. It is important that the outward organization of it should remain the same. That, to say the least, is the most obvious way of showing that the life itself remains the same.
But there is a further reason why the external features should be preserved. It belongs to the nature of a sacrament that there should be an outward and visible sign as well as an inward and spiritual grace. The very existence of the outward sign involves, as we said at the beginning of this lecture, the existence of a certain mechanistic element. It is one of Maurice’s great merits as an exponent of Christian doctrine that he recognized this truth and proclaimed it quite openly. It is a view from which many of our contemporaries shrink. It seems to have so little to do with what they regard as a religion of the heart. But one cannot divorce religion from the visible. The spiritual and material are not contradictory but complementary, and this is true of the Church as of every other sacramental expression of religion.
But if the outward and visible mechanism is necessary, then it must function according to its own laws and act within the terms proper to its own mode of existence. In any organism, continuity is necessary for the preservation of identity. In the case of the Church, you cannot suddenly make a break and start all over again. That was the vital error of the Continental reformers. They had no interest whatever in the history and continuity of the Church. They regarded the Middle Ages as nothing but corruption and were quite sincere in their efforts to get back to primitive conditions. The task, of course, was impossible. For one thing they had not the learning to know what the primitive conditions were. The fact that there were so many different opinions resulting in so many different sects shows the difficulty of their task. But even if they had found out more about primitive conditions and even supposing that they had been able to reproduce exactly in all its details the position as it existed in the first century, they would still not have produced a Church identical with that of the first ages. You cannot eliminate a thousand years of the Church’s existence and then say, “What we have now is identical with what they had in the first five centuries.” Continuity is necessary for identity. At the same time it is no guarantee of perfection. Succession, continuity, apostolicity: these things do not in themselves guarantee that the Church at any given moment is all that it should be, any more than the continuity of your own body guarantees that you are at this moment in a perfect state of health. But at least the continuance of the body guarantees the identity of the personality and the continuity of its life. That is what is involved in the Note of apostolicity. That must at all costs be preserved in all our negotiations for the reunion of Christendom.
There is an apologetic value in this guarantee of continuity which is sometimes missed. What is the best rough-and-ready argument to use with the man in the street in defence of the historicity of the Gospel? I suggest it is the local parson. Point the enquirer to him and ask where the parson comes from if Jesus never lived. It is a fact that the existence of the ministry is inexplicable apart from the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The succession of the Christian priesthood can be traced back to its source in the Apostles of Christ, and is therefore our most direct and obvious link with the Jesus of history.
But we must not regard the mark of apostolicity as being confined to the ministry. It belongs to the whole Church. And the Church enters not only into the formal successiveness of what is apostolic but also into its deep inner meaning.
After all, what is essential to apostolicity is not merely historical continuity but the fact of being sent. The Apostle or Shaliach was the plenipotentiary sent on a special mission. In this sense, also, Jesus is the Apostle par excellence, and the Church derives its commission from Him. “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”
Here again we see the dynamic character of a note of the Church. The Church has a work, and an authoritative work, to do. It represents the Christ on earth as the Christ represented the Father. We shall be considering the precise character of this work in our last lecture. It is sufficient to notice here that this divinely appointed task constitutes a challenge to the whole Church and to every individual member. We, like our Master, have a task to perform, and how are we straitened till it be accomplished.
We may sum up what we have been trying to say about the Nature of the Church by affirming that its character is essentially sacramental. It is an organism rather than an organization. Although it consists of many members, one life pervades them all. As a living entity it is capable of creative activity. It is not only One but unitive, not only Holy but redemptive, not only Catholic but evangelistic, not only Apostolic but missionary. In other words, its nature is to reproduce the character of Christ: “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.”
2 – The Structure of the Church
In the first lecture, we dealt with the nature of the Church, discussing its sources in the Old Testament and its refoundation in the New, together with its doctrinal significance as drawn from St. Paul’s metaphor of the body, and its consequent dynamic quality. Then we went on to consider the nature of the Church as the beloved community, as the school of character, as the ark of salvation, and as the historical link with Christ.
Today we are concerned with the Church’s structure. The matter is important intrinsically because, unless we realize how the Church is properly built up, we may make grave mistakes in endeavouring to identify it and maintain its unity. The matter is also practically important, because only as we understand the proper structure of the Church can we undertake adequate steps to assist its work. Obviously, we must come to some kind of agreement about the proper constitution of an organization if we are trying to amalgamate various claimants to a share in its authority and powers. Similarly, unless we understand how it is constructed our bungling efforts to forward its purposes may do more harm than good.
We begin, then, with the recognition of the fact that there must be a structure; the Church is not and cannot be formless. This conclusion arises at once out of a recognition of its visible nature. If the Church were invisible, then there would be no need for any formal structure at all. If the nature of the Church were purely spiritual, it would not matter in the least what shape its organization assumed here upon earth. But as the Church is visible, as it consists of human people with body as well as soul, it must have some kind of organization. The mere fact that it involves a gathering together of a number of individuals means that from the most practical point of view there is necessity for some well-regulated machinery; otherwise everything would be in hopeless confusion.
It is now generally agreed that this necessity was recognised from the first. Dr. Flew, the eminent Methodist theologian, is quite clear that the very use of the word “Church” always implied some such essential organization. “A great claim was involved in the choice of the word. ‘The new religion did not start as a group of conventicle cult-communities.’ The primary meaning is that of the whole assembly of the faithful gathered together in worship before God in whatever local community they might be found.” [Jesus and His Church, p. 19.] The Church, then, is prior to a local community. It is a universal organization which is found, so to speak, in miniature in each local congregation. The local congregations do not add up to form the Church. The Church is there in the beginning and they are local expressions of it.
If you ask whence this conception comes, Dr. Flew would answer that it dates back to the Old Testament with its account of the Call of Abraham and the making of the Covenant. He would add that the thought was quite clearly in the mind of Christ when He inaugurated the New Covenant. Flew analyses the idea of the Church as it existed in the mind of our Lord under five headings. There is, first, the New Israel, which is the nucleus of the Christian Church. Second, there is the ethical teaching of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit, binding together in one common purpose and inspiring with a common vitality that New Israel. Next comes the Messiahship and with it the allegiance which all those who recognized Jesus as the promised Saviour owed to Him. Fourth, there is the Gospel of salvation, whose proclamation was the main duty of the new organization. And fifth, there is the actual mission on which the new community was sent out. There are points that for completeness should be added to this analysis, as we shall see later. But in the meantime you will notice that it discloses the idea of a definite body of people with a definite task to perform, a definite loyalty to a common leader, and a definite power or vital energy upon which to draw.
If you ask further when our Lord actually launched the organization thus conceived by Him, Dr. Flew would answer, “At the Last Supper.” “If we may look for any one moment wherein the New Israel was constituted it would be in the act of Jesus at the Last Supper.” [Ibid., p. 105.] It was then that the new covenant was inaugurated. There were indeed preparatory steps, as for instance, Jesus’ call of the disciples, His sending them forth to preach, the acknowledgment of His Messiahship by St. Peter, and His revelation of the mystery of the suffering Messiah. And, of course, there were consequences, such as the Crucifixion, and the outpouring of the Spirit. But the central moment of the inauguration was the actual breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup and the announcement, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” This dating of the inauguration of the Christian Church at the Last Supper may seem to be in conflict with the more common view that the birthday of the Church was the first Whitsun Day. We might reconcile the two views while preserving the same metaphor, if we said that the Church was conceived at the Last Supper but born on Whitsun Day. But we should still have to remember its ancestry in the Church of the Old Testament.
These efforts to fix a precise date have the effect of concentrating attention all the more closely upon the visible as distinct from the invisible element in the Church’s being. As we have seen, the Church itself is sacramental and its organization was thought of as being at least as physical as the actual elements of bread and wine. In any case, it is quite safe to say that no Jew brought up in the intensely realist and practical mentality of his race could ever have thought of a Church or assembly that was not an organized body of people.
The next question that arises for discussion in considering the structure of the Church is how its membership is constituted. In regard to the Jewish Church there had been no difficulty because the nation and the Church were practically coterminous. If you were born a Jew, you became a member of the Church on being introduced into the covenant relationship by the rite of circumcision. There was one apparent exception to this clear-cut line of demarkation, namely, when members of other races wished to join the Jewish religious organization. But exception proves the rule: they were told in effect that they could not do this without becoming Jews, and they became Jews “by adoption” through participation in the rite of circumcision. It is true that there were a considerable number of would-be proselytes who did not take this definite step. They became hangers-on of the synagogues. They performed certain lustrations which were parallel to the rite of Baptism as performed by John the Baptist. They accepted the Jewish monotheism and the comparatively exalted Jewish code of morality. But, without circumcision, they could not actually become members of Judaism. That was the recognized means of initiation into membership of the Jewish Church.
As we have already seen, this rule was broken down as far as the Christian Church was concerned as the result of certain steps culminating in the Council at Jerusalem described in Acts 15. Stephen had taken the first step by basing an appeal to a wider circle than Judaism upon the universal elements in ancient Judaism. Philip had taken the second step in baptizing Samaritans who were the hereditary foes and rivals of the Jews. He had followed this up by baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, a person whose very condition would have prevented his entry into the Jewish Church. Then St. Peter had been led by what appeared to be direct divine guidance to baptize into the Christian fold the members of Cornelius’ household, who were presumably Gentiles belonging to the outer fringe of the synagogue congregation.
It was among people of the latter class, sometimes called “proselytes of the gate,” that St. Paul’s preaching had a very marked success. It was his genius which made clear the reasons why they should not be circumcised. Psychologically, what was important was their faith in Christ, and therefore they should not be led to believe that they could only obtain salvation by fulfilling the duties enjoined under the Mosaic Law. From the organizational point of view, it would be fatal for the growth of the Christian Church if membership of it could only be obtained through the channel of Judaism. If the Gentiles must first become Jews before they could become Christians, it would mean more than a change of religion; it would mean that they must repudiate their natural pride of blood and nationality and identify themselves with the Jewish race. And that could be done only by going through a painful surgical operation. One can understand something of the wrath of the Jews when St. Paul offered admission to the Christian Church on such apparently easy terms as confession of faith in Christ and immersion in water.
Nevertheless, St. Paul was assuredly correct. Christianity was not intended to be a mere enclave within the borders of Judaism, or some society for the reformation of manners within the national Church, but a great Church itself. It was more indeed than any national Church; it was a universal Church which transcended the claims of race, nation, and class. That, in fact, was the issue settled at the Council in Jerusalem and it was the greatest issue any Council of the Church has ever had to face. The questions that so often agitate us today fade into comparative insignificance beside this great and fundamental problem which at this first Council found so satisfactory a solution.
The news of the decision was passed round to the local congregations by a letter from the Apostles in which it was stated that circumcision and the Mosaic Law were not to be expected from Gentile converts; all they were asked to do was to make such observance of the Jewish ritual and moral code as would make it possible for social intercourse to take place between the two parties without putting too heavy a strain upon the Jewish conscience. It is interesting to notice that when the letter was dispatched it began with the expression “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” a noteworthy testimony to the intensity of the first Christian generation’s belief that their deliberations were, in fact, guided by the Holy Spirit. They did, indeed, believe themselves to be the effective “Body of Christ,” not merely acting in His name but actually expressing His mind and doing His work in the contemporary world.
Membership of the Christian Church was thus the result of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. That faith was publicly professed at the initiatory rite of Baptism. It seems that one could not be actually baptized without some public confession of the Christian faith. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, this confession seems to have been a simple avowal of belief in Jesus as the Son of God. [Acts 8:37, which, in spite of textual difficulties, probably reflects original custom.] In other instances, if we are to judge from the last verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel, there would be a confession of faith in the Trinity. Sooner or later the latter became the universal custom. No doubt such admissions to Christian membership took place originally as the conversions occurred. Later, it was natural that a number of converts should be admitted together, both for convenience’s sake and because thus a greater impression would be made. Presently, the habit grew of putting the converts through a course of instruction and then holding their initiation ceremony on some great public occasion like that of the Easter Pasch, which was at once a memorial of the Jewish Passover and of Jesus’ Resurrection. It was natural, too, that the initiation ceremony itself should in these circumstances become more elaborate. Its main features were a repudiation of the old life of sin, the entry through Baptism into membership of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, and the sharing for the first time in the token meal which had become a distinctive Christian ceremony in continuation of the New Covenant inaugurated at the Last Supper.
The members of the Christian Church were therefore those who had accepted its faith and gone through its ceremony of initiation. There was no doubt who were members and who were not; the distinction was quite clear-cut. Later, indeed, in time of persecution there arose a question whether catechumens who were under instruction and had not yet been baptized were to be reckoned as Christians. The answer given was in the affirmative. It would have been altogether disastrous if the catechumens had not been recognized as Christians and so had been left in a dubious position when they were attacked by the persecutor. Indeed, there were occasions when a martyr was regarded as having been baptized in his own blood. These exceptions have to be remembered when one is on the point of maintaining that a person cannot be reckoned a Christian without Baptism, but they are exceptions, and the general rule was quite clear that membership of the Church was conferred by means of the great initiation ceremony, which included Baptism and the laying on of hands and culminated in what we should now call First Communion.
If this initiation ceremony marked entry upon membership of the Church, the rule of life that was observed by those who were well established in membership is made clear in the Acts of the Apostles. They continued, we are told, in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. [Acts 2:42.]
The “Apostles’ doctrine” may be regarded as an enlargement of that essential faith in Jesus or in the Holy Trinity which had been confessed at Baptism. It also marked off the true Christian teaching from any additions or subtractions that might be made by Jewish or pagan teachers who thought that they could improve upon what was originally given to the Christian community. The notion of orthodoxy was present almost from the start and the suggestion that the doctrine was apostolic gave it that note of Catholicity on which we dwelt in the last lecture.
Much the same thing must be said of the “Apostles’ fellowship.” It implies a sense of loyalty and allegiance; it means not simply that people shared a common friendship, although the community idea is strongly expressed in the word koinonia, but it gives the idea of a community with leaders, and these leaders were the Apostles. The “breaking of bread” to my mind can refer to nothing else than the Eucharist. The only other possible meaning (that of a full meal) would imply that Christians all took their meals together, which in view of the size even of the primitive community, is absurd. There may be an outstanding question whether the breaking of bread includes some common meal in addition to the solemn rites of the Eucharist. It is, indeed, commonly supposed that the usual custom was for the Christians to hold some meal together, presently called the agape, or Love-feast, at the end of which was celebrated the Holy Communion. For myself, I believe that that is a complete misreading of the evidence. I do not think that there ever was a common meal associated with the Eucharist, but that the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion always was merely a token meal and not a full meal. The agape I believe to have originated in circles outside those that can be described as apostolic, and to have been introduced into the main stream of Church life only at a comparatively late date. [See further pp. 221–231 of Wand, The General Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (Westminster Commentaries)] Consequently, I have no doubt that the breaking of bread here mentioned is what we should know as the Holy Communion.
The term “prayers” obviously refers (since it is limited by the definite article) to some fixed form of liturgical worship. No doubt the synagogue services were copied in the Christian communities. Indeed, it is practically certain that the first Christian communities did actually meet as synagogues. It was not difficult to start a new synagogue in any Jewish town or in any Gentile town where there was a large element of the Dispersion. When the Christian appeal in any town had failed and the congregation of the Jewish synagogue had refused to accept the “good news,” the Christian teachers with the few supporters they had found would simply start a new synagogue of their own. They felt themselves to be the “remnant” of the New Israel in that particular locality. Like their comrades in many other cities they would meet and recite the usual prayers and hymns. And besides the usual Scriptures, they would soon begin to read the letters of St. Peter and St. Paul and St. John. No doubt the sermons would be largely taken up with explaining how the Jewish Scriptures themselves pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. So, although they might use roughly the old form of service, it would be shot through with a new significance.
Those, then, are the four signs by which the members of the Christian Church were distinguished. The people present would feel themselves one with similar small communities meeting in different parts of Palestine and in other countries bordering the Mediterranean. And they would feel that that fellowship to which they belonged was an apostolic fellowship, in the sense that it centred in the Christian Apostles. And the life that informed it was that of Christ and His Spirit.
In many respects the most important element in the structure of the Church is of necessity the ministry. It is, so to speak, the anatomical framework of the Body, the skeleton that gives it cohesion and enables it to function. That of course is taking for granted the view that there always was a ministry. But about the whole subject of the Church’s ministry the most divergent views have been, and still are, held. It was, indeed, one of the points that Maurice had to tackle with his Quaker friends. They refused to recognize any distinction between one Christian and another; and they held that all, being recipients of the same Spirit, could perform the same functions. That seems to be a direct denial of the position taken up by St. Paul in I Corinthians 12, [Cf. Rom. 12:3–7] where he affirms most strongly the principle of diversity in unity. He claims that each of us has his particular gift and that each should use his own gift for the benefit of all. The eye and the hand and the ear differ from each other but the function of each is necessary to the perfection of the whole body. It is interesting to notice that according to the author of Ephesians, whether St. Paul himself or another, the gifts bestowed upon His Church by the ascending Lord were actually gifts of ministry. “He gave some apostles; and some, prophets; and some, pastors and teachers ... for the work of the ministry.” [Eph. 4:11, 12]
It may of course be questionable how highly specialized these gifts were, and whether any of them were to be exclusively exercised by a class apart. But the special position given to the Apostles and the reference to the appointing of elders, as well as the choosing of the Seven and apparently of others to act as subordinate ministers, does appear to show that there was a distinction from the start between the ministers and the people to whom they ministered, and even between one grade of minister and another. There were in other words the laos, the holy people of God, and a series of officers who ministered to them on His behalf. There was a distinction between clergy and laity. That view is now generally conceded. Although the Quakers themselves have not explicitly yielded to it, yet it is understood that even they now have a college where special training can be given to those of their members who wish to gain experience as speakers or what most of us would call Church workers. That suggests a clergy at least in embryo.
We have had in the past generation not a few endeavours to reinterpret the evidence as to the form taken by the ministry and as to the method of its appointment. One of the most interesting was that of Harnack, who thought that the pastoral ministry with its particular gift for preaching and teaching, “the charismatic ministry,” as he would call it, was of purely divine appointment. Men felt in their souls that they were called, like the prophets of old, to preach and interpret the will of God and they simply responded to that call without tarrying for any. Apostles, pastors, and teachers would all belong to such a “charismatic” ministry. On the other hand, said Harnack, the ministry which was of human appointment was a merely organizing ministry without pastoral responsibility. The latter was local and stationary while the former was peripatetic and universal. The distinction between a charismatic and an ordained ministry has now been generally abandoned, since it is recognized that St. Paul himself includes among the gifts of God the organizing functions of helps, governments, and so on, and the gift of the Spirit is actually said to be conveyed by the laying on of hands. In other words, there is no necessity for separation between ordination and divine appointment; the ordained ministry is itself’ “charismatic.”
Another interpretation which has created a good deal of interest in our own time is the suggestion of Canon Streeter that there was no one specific type of ministry or of Church organization in the primitive age but that each and every one of the main types with which we are familiar could be found in some area or other of the early Church. His view was that previous historians had made the mistake of taking some one type belonging apparently to one area and then generalizing from it to the universal Church. He professed to believe that all known types were represented somewhere. His view at least showed the Englishman’s love of compromise and comprehensiveness. A number of well-known scholars who had no particular competence in this specific field of study immediately seized upon his solution as the most satisfactory interpretation of a puzzling set of facts and introduced it to the general reader in a letter to the Times. This gave it a wide publicity and a fleeting authority. It was, however, really a gesture of despair; and, in fact, there was singularly little evidence for it. Happily, it has now been generally abandoned and we are once again patiently trying to elucidate such evidence as we have. It is, of course, quite likely that there would be some difference between the arrangements of one local church and another. I imagine, for instance, that the staid and somewhat formal Jewish-Christian worship at Jerusalem would offer a striking contrast to the disorderly scenes that might occur in Gentile-Christian worship at Corinth. But these differences would be due to temperament and environment. It does not seem very likely that when there were apostles and evangelists travelling repeatedly among the local churches they would have suffered fundamental differences of organization.
One of the most promising lines of recent research has been the effort to trace the actual source of the Christian organization. We have to recognize that the Church grew up in a Hellenistic environment. That contained two major elements, one Western and the other Eastern, the one Greco-Roman and the other Semitic. In which lay the germs of Christian origins? The study of the classics, which was for long the most popular element in our own system of education, led English scholars almost inevitably to look rather to the Gentile than to the Jewish element in this mixed culture for the models of Christian institutions. In particular, Hatch mentions that the Greek word for bishop, episcopos, was the title of the steward of the social clubs and he thought that this gave a clue to the origin of the Christian official who went by that name.
More recently, however, there has been a great swing of scholarly opinion in favour of a Jewish origin for Christian institutions. In view of what we said in the first lecture about the origin of the Christian Church itself, this would be a natural conclusion. If the Church was originally Jewish and was refounded as the Body of Christ out of the “faithful remnant” of Israel, then presumably as much as possible would be taken over from the old society into the new. The Jewish source of Baptism is sufficiently obvious in the ritual ablution of proselytes and of those who associated themselves with the reformation of John the Baptist. The Jewish source of the Eucharist in the chaburah, or fellowship meal, is now equally established. The fleeting idea that it might have had something to do with the pagan mystery cults is completely disproved (although presumably no one wishes to deny that the meaning of the Eucharist may have been seen the more clearly against such a background). The actual ceremony itself and even its liturgical accompaniments are all of definitely Jewish origin, and their sources have been traced with a wealth of learning by Dom Gregory Dix in his Shape of the Liturgy. Similarly, as we have seen, the Christian Church took over the Jewish Scriptures, merely adding to them certain Scriptures of its own.
In the face of all this, it seems quite likely that the roots of the ministry are to be found in the same Jewish soil. We have no need to look for pagan parallels but merely to seek the origins of the Christian ministry in the Jewish organization, and then to see what change of doctrine and spirit occurred on its transplantation into a Christian setting. For this purpose I would strongly advise the student to read W. Lockton’s Divers Orders of Ministers. It is a book which received very little attention when it was published in 1930, perhaps because it was too ingenious and sought to prove too much. I do not wish myself to support its precise conclusions, but I feel that its general aim was the right one, and it did anticipate in a very striking way the present swing towards Judaism in the study of Christian origins. It even agrees with the position so strikingly maintained in the recent volume issued under the direction of the Bishop of Oxford on The Apostolic Ministry in selecting the Jewish apostolate for consideration as the key to the whole idea of the ministry.
The point is that the apostle was a well-known Jewish figure. He was essentially a plenipotentiary, an ambassador or legate, sent out with full powers to act for and on behalf of the person or organization that entrusted him with his mission. As the writers in the Bishop of Oxford’s volume repeatedly point out, the apostle was in a representative sense the person on whose behalf he acted. Lockton established the point that he was a recognized Jewish official, frequently functioning on behalf of the Sanhedrin, or Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, which served as a sort of headquarters not only for the Jewish people in Palestine but for the whole Jewish diaspora throughout the world. If the Sanhedrin sent an apostle to any local synagogue or collection of Jewish people anywhere at all, he, Lockton asserts, took precedence of all local officials and his instructions were expected to be carried out.
This is the light in which the mission of Christ’s Apostles is to be understood. He acted in the same way as the Sanhedrin. When He sent them out He conferred His own powers upon them. “He sent them to preach the kingdom of God.” [St Luke 9:2.] They were expected to exercise His authority in the spheres not only of organization but also of morals and of mental and physical healing. They had a very full and complete commission. [St. Mark 6:7 ff. St. Luke 9. St. Mark 10.] The one thing that they were not, at least at this stage, expected to do (and this must be noted in possible objection to a later stage of the argument) is to appoint successors to themselves. The commission they receive is given to themselves alone and they are to report back to Jesus.
The next stage occurs when Jesus had been taken from them. What they then proceeded to do is described to us in the volume of the New Testament which is expressly devoted to an account of their work. The Acts of the Apostles describes how they waited for some lead from Heaven and how, when they were convinced that the Spirit of Jesus had descended upon them, they had the courage to act in His stead and to set about the effort, first, to convert the rest of their nation to acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, and then to organize those who were converted. They seem at first to have regarded their number as regulated by the necessity to have each of the Twelve Tribes represented, and as there was one vacancy owing to the death of Judas they proceeded to co-opt a new member. But so important was it to maintain the idea of divine authority that by employing the device of the sacred lot they left the final choice to God Himself.
Nothing is clearer in the New Testament than the authoritative position accorded to the Apostles. It is indeed somewhat startling in view of what has just been said about the sacredness of the number twelve to find that presently St. Paul’s claim to be an Apostle is admitted. But that is accounted for by the appearance to him of the ascended Christ in the vision of the Damascus Road and the commission then given. Later we find other people numbered among the Apostles and there is a suggestion that a qualification for reception into the number was to have actually seen Christ after His Resurrection. But this for obvious reasons could not last for long. The passing away of the eye-witnesses may be the reason why the name of Apostle gradually dies out.
Another reason for the disappearance of the name was that, in the meantime, the Apostles had been successful in organizing a widespread Church and consolidating its ministry in a new form. No longer were peripatetic authorities needed. The congregations had been firmly established in many localities, and although each community was no doubt responsible for its own affairs, they all had such a strong idea of the universal Church that they inevitably regarded themselves as parts of a greater whole. The nature of the Church, as described in the last lecture, was fully understood and there was no serious trouble (except perhaps at Corinth) in maintaining the unity of the whole through the changing form of the administration. The main difference was that now, instead of the Church being organized by a central body of Apostles with a roving commission, the affairs of the whole body were administered by the local leaders, who later began to meet together in conference. That, of course, is a great change, though an inevitable one, and we must proceed to ask by what method it came about.
It must have been obvious from the start that the Apostles would need some assistance in the organization of the Church, and particularly in the administration of the sacraments. In any case, the most necessary qualification seems to have been appointment to the work by the Apostles themselves. That would preserve the unity of the organization and the authority of the central officers and their deputies against any rival claimants.
The first indication we have of the need for any kind of assistance arose in the distribution of charitable relief. The Greek-speaking widows complained that they were being neglected or unfairly treated. Consequently, seven assistants were appointed to take that part of the burden off the Apostles’ shoulders. A fact that has been often commented upon is that when we hear of the Seven actually functioning they are doing work far removed from the mere distribution of relief: they are preaching and baptizing. Indeed, they were to be the pioneers in the breaking away from official Judaism. This has assisted many to see in them the beginning of a new order. Certainly we find people described as “deacons” frequently associated with the bishops towards the end of the apostolic period, and deacons are even mentioned by St. Paul. Whether the Seven are to be regarded as the nucleus of these deacons is not certain, and opinion on the subject is fairly evenly divided among modern scholars. The writers of the most recent English book on the subject, The Apostolic Ministry [Kenneth E. Kirk, editor.] decide against it, but Dr. Cirlot, who has produced an American book, Apostolic Succession and Anglicanism, [F. L. Cirlot, Trafton Publishing Company.] which appeared about the same time and occupies much the same position in America as the former book does in England, decides in favour of it.
Personally, I believe that the two bodies, the Seven and the later order of deacons, are at any rate closely associated. The important point to remember is that both really were assistants. Lockton in his Divers Orders of Ministers makes the helpful suggestion that there were such assistants both in the Great Synagogue at Jerusalem and also in the local synagogues of the Jewish Church elsewhere. He contends that those assistants belonging to the Great Synagogue would have considerably greater prestige than those found in the provinces. This might suggest a reason for the distinction between the Seven who were immediately attached to the Apostles and the deacons who were later attached to a local church. It is possible that the close connection between the deacon and the bishop to whom he acted as assistant would mean that his prestige and perhaps his duties would vary according to the particular authority he served. It is well known that later generations saw the city area of the Church in Rome divided into seven regions, each of which was placed under the care of a single deacon. Such a deacon was obviously an officer of great importance. Everybody also recognizes the importance of a person like the Deacon Athanasius. On the other hand, it is probable that deacons in villages or small country towns would be people of considerably less standing. It is probable that this difference of status is still reflected in our distinction between a deacon and an archdeacon. Where we have departed today from the primitive practice is in making the diaconate a mere probationary step to the priesthood. In any case, it is necessary to notice that there was a body of assistants, and that their appointment seems to have followed quite closely the lines already laid down for parallel officers in the Jewish Church.
The second level on which we find help being acquired by the Apostle is not in the way of personal assistance but rather of responsible administration. We gather from the Pauline Epistles and particularly from the Pastorals that the organization of a local church was not regarded as complete until “elders” had been appointed to manage its affairs. This is so important that where an Apostle like St. Paul cannot manage it himself he sends a delegate like Timothy or Titus to arrange their appointment for him. This arrangement, too, comes straight out of Judaism, because each local synagogue was under a managing body of elders. Such administration was so common and indeed fundamental that the Apostles did not hesitate to describe themselves as elders, and even St. Peter will occasionally remind the board of directors of a local church that he is one of themselves. Similarly it is possible that the word “bishop” (episcopos) was used of them all alike.
What were the precise functions of the board is not altogether clear. Certainly they included the care of the building and the business management of the affairs of its congregation. The former would probably not amount to much where the congregation gathered in the house of some well-to-do Christian, but it would be more important when such houses were converted into Christian synagogues, and more still when separate buildings began to be erected for the purpose of Christian worship. In any event, where people gather together there is always some business to be done, and this business nearly always falls into the hands of a committee. In the case of a religious community, there is more than material business. The moral status of the community has to be preserved. The discipline thus involved would also be in the hands of the committee of elders. Again, in the case of a worshipping community, someone must be responsible for leading the devotions, and this too would be the normal duty of the elders. However, both in Judaism and in early Christianity there were those who possessed prophetic gifts, and they might be expected to use them for the benefit of the congregation whether they were numbered among the elders or not. Most sections of Christianity have recognized the capacity of gifted laity to preach, though the need for regulating their efforts has been recognized by Christian leaders from St. Paul downwards.
We have, then, this picture of the structure of the Church in the primitive age. There is the general body of the faithful who have been admitted by the great initiatory rite of Baptism and Confirmation including a repudiation of a sinful past and a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. They are gathered in local communities, each under the direction of a board of elders. There is also a body of assistants or junior officials who come to be known as deacons. The whole is under the direction of a central body of Apostles who for the most part move about among the churches or else send their delegates with full authority to act on their behalf. The main burden of responsibility rests upon these Apostles; their authority is paramount and they preserve the outward and visible unity of the whole organization. That, I think, may be taken as an agreed picture of the Church in the first century.
Early in the second century we find a not inconsiderable change. The Apostles have mostly passed away and there is, therefore, no longer a central direction. Instead of that, we find the local communities, with their boards of elders and their assistants or deacons, but they are functioning under the direction of one administrative officer who is known as the bishop. That, at least, is the picture given by Ignatius who was himself Bishop of Antioch and went to his martyrdom about the year 115. It is suggested in some quarters that this is a highly individual picture which is not paralleled by the conditions which appear to have prevailed at other places like Alexandria and Rome. I have no opportunity now of going into details of the alleged differences. I can only say that these alternative pictures are very largely guesswork while the picture presented by Ignatius is the one quite clear and definite outline we have of the period and it stands without a rival for lucidity and contemporary authority. I cannot help feeling that in any other sphere of historical enquiry we should regard it as indicative of the characteristic organization and should proceed to build our own sketch of the period upon it. In any case, it is the scheme which did become characteristic of the whole Church, and we can therefore narrow down our enquiry to a consideration of the steps by which the change it represents took place.
Let us again note what was the precise nature of the change. The authority of an itinerant Apostle has been inherited by a local officer who is resident in and presides over an individual community. Now it seems to me that there were circumstances in the characteristic organization both of the Jewish synagogue and of Christian churches which made this change easy and natural, once the Apostles began to pass away. I find the point of contact in the fact that the body of elders was not at that time a board without a head but that there was always some one of the number who presided over the rest. The warrant for this view is not to be found merely in the somewhat hazardous evidence of documents but in the much more certain evidence of archaeological excavation. I have already pointed to the interesting fact that scholars are now much more ready to derive Christian origins from Jewish antecedents than they were a generation ago. Recent archaeological investigations have given interesting support to this tendency. We have for a long time been aware of the fact that in the earliest Christian churches the usual seating arrangements were made on the assumption that the bishop would sit, with his presbyters or elders on either side of him, behind the altar, looking over it and facing the people in the nave. What has recently been revealed is that this was the precise seating arrangement in the Jewish synagogues of the Hellenistic period. There was, of course, no altar, but there was a raised platform and there were stone benches running down the length of what we should call the north and south walls of the nave. On the latter the aged and infirm members of the congregation could sit while the rest would either stand or sit on mats on the floor. Facing them from the platform at the end of the synagogue were the seats of the elders. One of these seats was a kind of throne, or at least a much more dignified seat than the others. It was evidently intended for the presiding elder. It appears to be this throne that our Lord had in mind when He spoke of the scribes and Pharisees sitting “in Moses’ seat.” He meant not merely that they had the place of authority in contemporary Judaism but that this was analogous to the primacy conferred by the seat of honour in the synagogue. Sukenik, in his Schweich lectures of 1930, says that the cathedra or Seat of Moses was so familiar an object that a Palestinian scholar of the fourth century could facilitate the understanding of the Old Testament description of Solomon’s throne (“and the top of the throne was round behind,” I Kings 10:19) by giving his audience the simple explanation, “like the cathedral of Moses.”
At least three such presidential chairs have been discovered and are described by Sukenik. One was at Demos. It was made of white marble and possibly belongs to the end of the second century B.C. The second was at Chorazin and has a memorial inscription to the donor. And the third was at Hammath near Tiberias and is rather crudely carved out of a single block of white limestone with a rounded top. It appears to me highly probable, especially in view of the fact that, as we have seen, the Apostles reckoned themselves elders, that when an Apostle settled down in a particular place, as St. James did at Jerusalem or as St. John is alleged to have done at Ephesus, he would naturally occupy such a chair or throne in the synagogue. In other words, he would be given the place of president of the elders. Where an Apostle sent his delegate to deal with the affairs of a local church the same procedure would no doubt be adopted. Indeed, Lockton asserts that, even in Judaism, the apostolic delegate of the Great Synagogue would always take such precedence in any local synagogue. Conversely, is it not extremely probable that in churches where there was no Apostle some kind of apostolic status or recognition would be given to the presiding elder who occupied already such a position in the face of the congregation?
I think that some such step would be all the more likely owing to the exigencies of Christian worship. The distinctive rite of Christians was the Lord’s Supper, and in celebrating it certain actions have to be repeated by one man taking the place of the Master in the blessing of bread and wine. Who so appropriate for that function as the presiding elder? This would throw into strong relief the position held by the president, and almost of necessity involves the equation of president and bishop, for we know of course that in the Ignatian scheme the celebration of the Eucharist is regarded as the exclusive prerogative of the bishop.
It may be answered that we have no guarantee that such a presidency of the court of elders was held by one individual in perpetuity. It has indeed been suggested that his was an annual appointment. What the evidence is I do not know, but that would not in itself prove any objection to the point I am trying to make, which is simply that here in this official we find a natural point of transition from the itinerant Apostle to the resident bishop.
It seems to me that this ought to help us in our consideration of the very important point about succession which is the main subject of the monumental volume, The Apostolic Ministry, issued under the direction of the Bishop of Oxford. Several writers in that book suggest a rather questionable isolation of the idea of succession. They are apparently ready to throw everything else into the discard so long as they can prove that there was one essential ministry to hand on its existence in perpetuity along an unbroken line. But it seems to me that perpetuity must be required for some purpose. In other words, there must have been some definite function belonging to the office to be perpetuated. I would suggest that superintendence is such a function. If you say that the only necessary thing the Apostles had to do was to provide for a succession then you can be met immediately by the argument that that is one thing which does not appear at all in the terms of their original commission. They were sent out by our Lord as authoritative representatives of the Kingdom. They were His delegates in preaching repentance and healing diseases. In describing their position, St. Luke uses the two words “power” and “authority.” [St. Luke 9:1.] They obviously had a certain managerial function. I suggest that it was in providing for the future superintendence of the churches that they needed successors for themselves, and that the president of the body of elders would supply the natural point at which that managerial succession would be provided.
It is worth notice that the idea of succession is not something which has been produced under the heat of modern controversy. It was important in the Jewish as well as in the Christian Church. It is to be found even to the extent of a tactual succession in the Old Testament where Moses is provided with a successor by the laying on of hands. [Numbers 27:18.] Cirlot, indeed, affirms that the elders of the Jewish synagogues laid great emphasis on succession in their own case and were proud to derive their own office through such succession by laying on of hands from Moses himself.
So far as I am aware, the first time that the question of succession arises in Christian history is in the Epistle of Clement. But that was written about 95 A.D. and is consequently earlier than some of the material in the New Testament. The circumstances under which the question arose lent force to the view taken here. There had been a stasis in the Corinthian church and some presumably younger elements had questioned the authority of some of the elders and tried to turn them out of office. Clement reminds them that they have no right to do this because the officers were appointed in due succession from the Apostles and therefore their claim to their office was indisputable.
I do not think we need go into the vexed question of the relation between function and status in the ministry. I am inclined to think that we cannot clearly separate the two ideas in the early Church. I do not suppose that even the definite distinctions of our own time between one function and another can be carried back into the apostolic age. As we have seen, the Seven, though appointed for one quite specific purpose, are soon found fulfilling others; so that even on the level of official duties there might be room for some confusion. Nevertheless, the general claim to superintendence must have been there. For this reason, the broad distinction made in the volume on the Apostolic Ministry between an essential and a dependent ministry has a real value. At any rate, it was well to establish the doctrine that there has always existed in the Church of Christ a set of officials who had the authority to pass on their orders while there were others who had not that authority. In other words, the Apostolate has never died out in the Church. My own effort has been to show that this office was regarded as including (in addition to an ordinary ministry to souls) a certain element of superintendence, and then to point out the strong probability that both together were passed on to the presiding elder of the local church and so to the episcopate of modern times.
At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that, while the Apostles existed, there were also elders and a body of assistants who were known as deacons. If the view I have stated is correct, then as the Apostles individually passed away there were found presiding elders or bishops to take their places. Therefore, what we know as the three orders were of apostolic origin. Indeed, it can be said that these offices came, like so much else of the Christian organization, out of the Jewish Church. I am therefore a little at a loss to understand how Hebert can make the assertion [The Form of the Church, p. 44, Faber & Faber, London.] that we cannot “find a threefold ministry of Bishops, priests and deacons in the apostolic age.” That, of course, looks like a flat contradiction of the Prayer Book Ordinal which says quite explicitly that “from the apostles’ time there have been these orders of ministers in Christ’s Church: Bishops, priests and deacons.” I should have thought on a sober consideration of the facts that we had never been in a better position to support the Prayer Book statement than we are at the present time. [In private correspondence Hebert explains his position as follows: “I mean to assert what is maintained in The Apostolic Ministry, namely that the offices of bishop, priest and deacon, which the Preface to the Ordinal declares to have existed in the Apostles’ time, existed then in potentia rather than in actu; the office of ‘bishop’ descends, by succession of Ordination, from that of ‘apostle of Jesus,’ while gathering up in itself also that of ‘chairman of the presbyters’.... Therefore as regards the substance of the matter the Preface to the Ordinal is correct.’”]
3 – The Function of the Church
The function of the Church springs directly out of its nature and its structure. The Apostolate of Christ is continued not only in those officers whom he deputed as His own Apostles but also in a very real sense in the Church as a whole. The Church is Christ’s plenipotentiary appointed to act on His behalf and to continue the work that He came to do. In this way, the function of the Church is closely related to its structure.
Even in the course of His earthly life Jesus had said to the members of His Church “whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” giving them authority to make their arrangements in His name. These arrangements would be valid for the sphere of space and time and within that sphere they were to be regarded as having behind them the authority of Heaven. We have already seen how simply the Church of the first generation understood this bestowal of authority. When it issued its conclusions reached in the first Council of Jerusalem it prefaced them with a formula: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
But this is not the whole of the story; the Church’s function can be even more easily deduced from its nature. The Church is, as we saw in the first lecture, the Body of Christ, the outward expression of His personality and the means by which that personality impresses itself upon the world.
The function of the Church, therefore, is to continue the work of Christ. There is something specially significant in the fact that this authoritative work is committed not merely to individuals but to a society. It is at once evident that in the Christian view religion is not only individual but social. Religion is not merely the “flight of the alone to the alone”; it is not just a relation “between my soul and God”; it is not merely “what a man does with his solitude.” It concerns human beings in community. We are all our brother’s keeper, we have a responsibility for each other, and we have to assist each other in spiritual as well as in material things. It is true that no man has a right to stand as a barrier between my soul and God, but every man has a duty to act as a friend in guiding my soul to God.
This duty to each other receives a particular importance when we remember precisely what Christ’s own work was. If one were asked to put in the briefest possible sentence a description of Christ’s purpose on earth, one would reply that it was to mediate God’s friendship for man. That is the essential thing in the Christian faith. We believe that God is the friend of man. He is not simply the ruler over the whole universe, nor is He merely a judge, whether equable or capricious. But He is, first and last, the friend of the creatures He has made. It is, indeed, out of His love that He made them, and that love pursues them to the end in the accomplishment of His purpose.
All this was revealed by Jesus, and He, in identifying Himself with God, exhibited this friendship in His own life and work. By His passion and death He showed how far the love of God was prepared to go. The serene and untroubled love of the Creator, when interpreted in human terms, is shown to be consonant with much suffering and real self-sacrifice. Indeed, it is only as they see it in these terms that men recognize the love of God for what it is. The sun swinging in the heavens sends a beam through our windows. We recognize the beam because the light is broken, refracted upon the myriad motes of dust that dance within it. So the infinite love of God shining out of eternity, when it strikes athwart our sphere of space and time is broken, refracted upon the Cross of Calvary. Thereby we can recognize it for what it is.
It is that love which the Church continues to mediate, acting in the person of Christ. In our own ecclesiastical organization we divide our country up into parishes and in each parish is set one parson, persona, representative of God and the Church, to mediate professionally this friendship of God for men. What he does professionally every Christian is expected to do voluntarily. Our main business is to manifest Christian agape, or love, which is nothing less than the determined effort to serve the highest ends of all others with whom we come in contact. So the Church continues the work of Christ and brings to men the experience of God’s love.
But to analyse the function of the Church it is necessary to ask by what means Christ accomplished His work. The answer is two-fold: He did it first by revelation and then by redemption. Under the first heading is included His teaching, under the second, His work.
The teaching of Christ can be regarded as the culmination of the long line of Old Testament History, the law and the prophets. That early revelation was, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, partial and spasmodic. [Heb. 1:1.] Amos could proclaim the justice of Jehovah, Hosea His loving kindness; Isaiah could proclaim the sovereignty of God, Ezekiel His direct relation to the individual. The whole history of the chosen people gave evidence that righteousness exalts a nation and that in the last resort it is God who rules over all. Hebrew writers could oscillate between the two poles of exclusive racial purity and universal benevolence. Most important of all they could point to the future Messianic kingdom when God’s rule would be established on the earth. The Wisdom literature could lift the thoughts of men to God and the Psalmists bring their hearts close to Him in lyrical song. The whole anthology could also lead slowly and by painful degrees to a conviction of immortality and a future life. But all these were fragments of a mosaic for which the full pattern could not yet be discerned.
Presently there was a general crumbling of faith until the Baptist summoned men to a recognition of sin and to an effort at reformation in preparation for the coming Kingdom. With that movement Jesus identified Himself. Then, having placed Himself at its head He revealed the eternal verities about the nature of God and His attitude to man with a clarity and an authority that had never before been known. He did indeed tear away the veil that hid the mysteries of existence, and made men understand, as they had never yet understood, both the source and the end of their being.
To this revelation on the part of Jesus must be added His work of redemption. He came to redeem people from their sins; He was intent upon putting an end to their weakness and frustration and filling them with a new power. He galvanized those who came in contact with Him into a new energy; and those who went out to do His work exhibited an influence over other people’s personality, and even over their feeble and diseased bodies, which was a convincing exhibition of a new creative activity. But, in order to free them entirely from the shackles of their past, He must pay the utmost ransom for their freedom and submit Himself to the voluntary dissociation of His own life from every material entanglement. He must suffer death upon the Cross in order that they, too, might learn to die with Him to the world and all its selfish ambitions. Then when He rose again they would recognize that they might rise with Him to a new life and a new glory, filled with a sense of power flowing from One who had been strong enough to burst the bonds of death.
It is by these two means of revelation and redemption that the Church still carries on the work of Christ. We call it the Ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments, but essentially it is the continuance of the two aspects of Christ’s own function.
The Ministry of the Word includes every effort to make God’s Will known to His people. It includes all the preaching and reading of the Scriptures, the evangelistic, missionary, and educational work of the Church. It includes every teaching effort from the work of the profoundest theologian to that of the youngest Sunday school teacher. It includes, most important of all, every occasional remark made in ordinary conversation by every simple Christian, intentionally or unintentionally making known something of the nature of the God whom he loves and adores.
The Church is the inheritor of an authentic revelation. We must never forget that, or belittle our own claim in order to conciliate passing opinion. “Well, of course,” once said an unsympathetic heckler at a public meeting where I had been venturing to express this point of view, “if Mr. Wand is in possession of absolute truth there is nothing more to be said.” It shows how incredible may seem to be the claims of the Church when they are really pressed home. We do, of course, claim to be in possession of absolute truth. That does not mean of course that we claim to be in possession of all truth. There is a great deal on every level that we do not know but we do believe that we have possession of certain vital necessary elements of truth. The existence of God and His character of love, the intervention of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord and the possibility of our partnership with Him, the spiritual nature of the universe, the meaning and purpose of life, all these are already known; and we have been told that God’s own Spirit will guide us to a realization of the rest of knowable things. In other words, we have been given the key by which ultimately all the hidden secrets of the universe will be unlocked—
I give you the end of a golden string.
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
William Blake, Jerusalem.
It follows that, with this authoritative revelation in its possession, the Church must function as the conscience of society. God’s Will must be made known in the moral sphere at all costs. Consequently, the Church has an important function to perform in seeing that the people are not left without the knowledge of God’s Will. The function performed in the Old Testament already by the prophets must still be performed by the accredited representatives of the Church, and at a higher level. It is necessary that the Church should always have its mind open to perceive the indications of God’s approval or disapproval of the moral standing of the nation. The Church has no monopoly of scientific knowledge or of political sagacity, and both are of great importance. In neither sphere could the Church venture to speak with authority. But where moral issues are concerned, there the Church is, so to speak, on its own ground. It has the standards by which a judgment can be made. It is for the Church to keep itself abreast of the situation and to form a judgment, not in accordance with ingrained prejudice or inherited convention, but in accordance with the known will of God as revealed in the Scriptures and made clear in the Church’s age-long experience.
The word which the Church has to minister is thus a living and abiding thing. Its message is enshrined in the Scriptures but is not confined to them. The Scriptures are the foundation-documents of the faith: they give us a record of the classical period of our history. Nevertheless they are meant to be used not as a fetish but with intelligence. Naturally, the very form in which the revelation is given will make its claim upon the reverence of all Christian people, but it is the spirit of the Scriptures that is more important than the words. It is a great thing to be able to quote the Scriptures and to have their gracious words often ringing in one’s ears. But the good must not be allowed to become the enemy of the better. The substance of the revelation is more important than the letter. We must not be content with quoting brief texts, but we must be diligent to find out what is the total message which each of the sacred writers wishes to convey; and we must not be content until we have learned to discern that message. Only so shall we be able to catch the spirit of the Scriptures as a whole; and only when we have caught that spirit shall we be able to “minister the word” to the people around us.
Christ’s work of redemption is paralleled in the function of the Church by the ministry of the sacraments. They are the extension of Christ’s activity, the means by which the individual is taken and incorporated into Christ. The author of II Peter has assured us that we may become “partakers of the Divine nature.” [II Peter 1:4.] Our relation to Christ is not one of mental acceptance and allegiance only, but also a quasi-physical sharing in His life. We have already seen that St. Paul describes Baptism as the means whereby we are “grafted” into Christ. St. Paul inverts the metaphor. The suggestion is that in virtue of this sacrament the same sap, the same vital energy, flows through the young scion and through the main tree, but it is the new twig that is affected. We are adopted into Christ, and His life, by means of this grafting, begins to circulate in our veins. Other sacraments convey the means by which this life grows. It is strengthened by the Spirit in Confirmation, fed by continually renewed access to the personality and vital energy, the Body and Blood, of Christ in Holy Communion.
This is sometimes regarded as an amoral interpretation of religion. And so it would be if it stopped there; but it does not stop there. The life thus engendered by the sacraments is daily exercised in godliness of living. The moral struggle with every kind of difficulty and temptation reinforces in the sphere of the will what the sacraments have accomplished in the sphere of innermost being. Just as in natural life food must be accompanied by exercise for ensuring growth, so in religion participation in the sacraments must be accompanied by moral endeavour.
Thus we now have what the Germans would call an ethico-mystical interpretation of religion. Personally, I believe it to be essential Christianity. But there are many theologians for whom it is sheer superstition. For them, sacraments are either a primitive or worn-out garment, which never belonged to the body of the faith at all, and should now be completely discarded; or else they are picturesque symbols, which still may fill a useful purpose if they are regarded as no more than optional appendages.
It was one of Maurice’s great merits that he saw the value of the sacraments as means by which the redemptive work of Christ might be applied to us. I do not say that he would necessarily have endorsed the precise view I have outlined. But if he had been asked whether he pictured the sacraments as right outside the sphere of Christian faith, or allowed them a place on the fringe of Christianity, or regarded them as having their proper position in the centre, he would, I think, have asserted the last of the three views. And there I should agree with him. Christianity is through and through a sacramental religion. By this means the life of Christ is imparted to us as members of His Church and may be lived out in all its moral beauty before the eyes of men. To keep this divine traffic moving is the function of the Church.
This double ministry of word and sacrament has to be adapted to meet the needs of each age. Thus the ministry of the word broadens out into the manifold opportunity presented to the Church in the sphere of education. In this sphere the function of the Church is both to carry on the search for truth and also to impart the truth when it is found.
The duty of the Church to inspire those of its members who have the right capacity to enter into the field of research is of great importance. In our own day, we suffer because new discoveries have been most common in the physical sphere and people have become so engrossed in them that they have lost awareness of spiritual values. Long ago, the Swedish botanist, asked what place he found for God in his scale of values replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” But that is absurd. Everyone has need of a spiritual cause to explain spiritual phenomena. You cannot explain goodness and beauty by a mathematical formula. Love, honour, and justice are not deposits of the endocrine glands. The person who begins and ends with the material universe has not solved the problem of existence. He has not found any purpose or meaning for life. In such a position there can be no permanent satisfaction. It is the business of the Church to make scientists push their investigations further and further until they see the unsatisfactory nature of mere physical explanations and penetrate to some realization of the spiritual constitution of the universe.
It is, therefore, the duty of the Church to see that people already imbued with spiritual ideas take their part in physical research. We cannot leave what are commonly called the sciences to irreligious exploitation while we content ourselves with the humanities. We must claim the whole world for God and see that no part of it is left to the unchallenged occupation of the devil. We have heard quite enough about the atom bomb to know what deadly weapons science may put into the hands of unredeemed humanity or of a humanity that has not claimed the privilege of its redemption.
If the ministry of the word thus includes probing deeper and deeper into the knowledge of God, it includes also the duty of making known that ascertained knowledge to others. It is the Church’s function to get that teaching done and to see that it is such as befits the revelation of God. Actually, of course, the Church has almost from its beginnings been the greatest instructor of youth. Even in the days of the Roman Empire, it had great catechetical schools where it instructed candidates for Baptism. From this beginning, in places like Alexandria and Antioch, there developed schools of more advanced instruction alongside the universities. After the Church was established, its greater churches developed schools for the education of boys committed to the bishop’s care. Thus the Church was able to hand on the treasures of Greco-Roman civilization impregnated through and through with Christianity to the barbarian hordes that flooded over the boundaries of the Empire at the beginning of the Dark Ages. It was the Church that tamed the barbarians and gave them such learning as they were capable of receiving. From the cathedral schools developed the universities, which later received many pious benefactions as monasticism began to lose its appeal. Consequently, the universities of Europe retained their ecclesiastical character until comparatively recent times, a character which the ancient universities have not yet entirely lost. Again it was the Church which, together with some of the Nonconformist bodies, was responsible for the teaching of the poor in the early nineteenth century, and it was the example of the Church which finally aroused the State to action almost within living memory. Now that the State has to a very large extent taken over the function of education, the Church still has its part to play, and particularly to see that so far as possible education shall be permeated with the Spirit of Christ.
In the midst of a situation which is still confused and uncertain, there are some points which give ground for encouragement. Among them is the fact that many of the English public schools which seemed a short time ago to be drifting away from the definiteness of their religious foundation are now, under the guidance of a remarkably devoted set of headmasters, finding their way back to a concrete, definite, and distinctive Church teaching and worship. On the side of the State, it is comforting that under the new Education Act every child in the country is bound to receive some training in religious knowledge and practice unless the parents definitely forbid it.
It is also comforting that the Church is being given ample facilities to preserve such of its own schools as are worth keeping and to see that in them its own distinctive faith and worship are taught and practised. The only doubt here is whether the Church will rise to the greatness of its opportunity and show itself ready at whatever sacrifice to fulfill its proper function. It is much to be hoped that the Church will bestir itself before it is too late and seize the opportunity now presented to it. It will be a calamity of the first magnitude to religious education if there are no schools in which the distinctive ethos of the Church is retained. This, of course, cannot be done by giving specifically Anglican teaching in one or two periods of instruction on weekdays. It is a question of the whole atmosphere of the school throughout the complete course of its work.
It is the function of the Church to maintain and propagate its own particular ethos; and that is as much a part of the ministry of the word as is the preaching of a sermon in the pulpit or reading a lesson from the lectern. What we have to remember is that education is the training of the whole personality, not merely the imparting of a certain measure of information. As man has a spiritual as well as material being, he must receive a training fitted to both aspects of his existence.
In the view of many educationalists, religion is the only influence that can combine all the elements of learning together and give them unity so that they can apply to the whole man. Learning is becoming so highly specialized and departmentalized today that it is very difficult to find any common ground between one subject of study and another. Those who believe in Christ accept His own word: “I am the way, the truth and the life”; they believe that all goodness, truth and beauty are grounded in Him and lead to Him. Therefore, whatever may be their subjects of special study, they find their lives and thoughts still integrated in Him, and each step they take leads them nearer to Him because the truth they pursue proceeds from Him. As Dean Inge has said, every fact taken and followed to its ultimate conclusion should lead us to God.
If the ministry of the word in the modern world thus opens to us large vistas, the same may be said of the ministry of the sacraments. As the Church ministers these sacraments she applies the life of Christ to the hearts and lives of men, and incorporates believers into Him. But this is not the whole of the story. By fulfilling this function of the sacraments strictly so called, it reveals its own sacramental nature and also opens up the possibility of a sacramental interpretation of the universe as a whole. Because in Baptism we are grafted into Christ, and because the consecrated Bread and Wine veil the hidden personality of Jesus, because, that is to say, the outward and visible sign can convey the inward and spiritual grace, we begin to realize that everything may be more than it seems. We recognise even the material universe as a garment of God which conceals Him while at the same time revealing the outlines of His form. If bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, there is revealed a new spiritual capacity in the standing corn and the purpling grape. Similarly, the Church itself a visible society used as the instrument of the hidden personality of Jesus, reveals hitherto-unsuspected capacities in society at large.
Here is a truth with Maurice was one of the first in the modern world to see. Society is itself a possible means of the expression of divine love and, therefore, it must be steadily adapted and fitted for its purpose. Industry, the professions, the arts, the sciences, must be baptized into Christ. They must be more and more re-formed until Christ can grow to full stature in them and express Himself completely through them.
Here, then, is another function of the Church, to act as a leaven to leaven the whole lump of society. It is not the duty of the Church to rule the State, nor must the Church allow itself to be ruled by the State, but it is to be within the State a continually ennobling power acting as a social conscience, pointing out abuses to be reformed, passing moral judgment on the effect of measures as they are tried out in practice, offering inspiration and advice where new legislation is concerned, and influencing every kind of organization to function according to the will of God.
Today, the Church endeavours to perform this function in various ways. It attacks the problem, so to speak, from outside by sending its speakers to address gatherings in factories, offices, government departments. It does it from inside by inspiring such of its own members as sit in the Houses of Parliament, on County Councils, and in other legislative and administrative bodies to keep spiritual ends in view. The sacramental effect of the work of all such people in making their section of society the fit and proper environment for the growth of the spirit is of incalculable value. Most of all is this seen where the church building is itself the effective centre of a parish and of all parochial life, where from its altar there radiates an influence penetrating the homes, the workshops, and the pleasure resorts of its people, bringing to all alike not merely the inspiration but the strength to go forward and live the life of Christ in each and all of their activities before the eyes of their fellowmen.
All this may be put succinctly by saying that the paramount function of the Church is to prepare the way for the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is here that I find myself in some measure of disagreement with Maurice. He appears to equate the Kingdom of God with the Church.
That, of course, is an equation which is quite frequently made, and I believe it is common form among Roman Catholic theologians. I question, however, whether it is in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament. There are several differences between the Kingdom of God and the Church as depicted there which are worthy of notice.
In the first place, the Church, while of course it has a future, is generally described as belonging to the present; the Kingdom, on the other hand, while it has a present, is generally depicted as belonging to the future.
It is, of course, well known that some modern scholars have thought that the Kingdom as described in the New Testament is altogether future. Schweitzer’s apocalyptic theory made it appear that our Lord Himself and the New Testament writers thought of the Kingdom as something just over the horizon. It was ready to appear; as John the Baptist plainly taught, it was already at hand. There was needed only some great dramatic act of self-sacrifice to usher it in; and that was provided by the Crucifixion of Jesus. This is the most extreme form of the futurist view. There has been a very sharp reaction against it. So strong, indeed, has been this reaction that some English scholars have gone to the opposite extreme and have suggested that what we have in the teaching of the Kingdom is a “realised eschatology,” that, is to say, that the Kingdom is regarded as having already come. It has actually arrived in the person of Christ and people have merely to be admitted into it.
It is very easy to think of passages of Scripture which can be quoted in support of either view, and that fact points to the necessity for some reconciliation between the two extremes. The probability is that the Kingdom is to be regarded as both present and future. It has begun in the person of Christ; it develops by successive stages in history; and it will progress beyond the point of history to a dénouement in the sphere of eternity. The dawn has already appeared and will shine more and more unto the perfect day.
The idea of the Church is in very considerable contrast to all that. It is an organization which is without any doubt here in our midst. Whereas, in regard to the Kingdom, people are encouraged to pray that it may yet come, the emphasis on the Church is related to present membership and the duties attaching thereto.
A similar contrast may be seen in the constitution of the two. While the Church is an organization with quite definite and precise limits, the Kingdom has no formal organization but begins as a state of mind and merges into a society. The Church lives by a precise rule of life; it has its sacraments, its ministry, its ordinances, and has for its primary interest ecclesiastical concerns. The Kingdom begins logically as the rule of God in men’s hearts and lives but gradually extends itself over the multifarious activities of society at large, even those that are regarded as essentially secular. The Church is a given, objective organism; the Kingdom is an ideal working itself out into practical reality.
In view of these differences, I would suggest that the best way of regarding the relations between the two is to think of the Church as the agent for bringing in the Kingdom of God. It is the means by which the way is prepared for the Kingdom. It is intended to work on that society which does not already acknowledge the rule of God and to bring it under His sway. But there are limits to the Church’s power. In the last resort, the Kingdom must come from God out of Heaven. We cannot create it, we can only prepare the way for it.
The means by which this function of the Church is most obviously fulfilled is its missionary work. In the mission field there is a clear-cut opposition between paganism and the Gospel. Ignorance has to be dispelled, cruelty and bestiality overcome, witchcraft and animism extirpated. These evils are expelled as the hearts of men are captured by the love of Christ. As they surrender their personality to Him, He takes possession of the whole of their being, and eradicates the haunting fears, the harassing doubts, and the inflamed passions that hitherto have thwarted and stunted their lives. As the converts are incorporated into Christ, the vital energy of His life flows through their veins and they become in fact new creatures. The difference is so startling that it can be recognized at once even by the casual acquaintance. Such people are members of Christ’s Church; they have become the inheritors of His Kingdom. But their environment is not yet that of the Kingdom. Much work has to be done on the conditions under which they live, in order that their surroundings may become such as to allow for the growth and development of the Christian character. Even circumstances which are not the primary concern of the Church such as economic and social welfare, legislation and culture, have to be laid open to the influence of Christ and indeed radically changed in order that they may be expressive of Christian ideals. It is in the whole of this task, the second half no less than the first, the work on the environment as well as on the individual soul, that the Church is preparing the way for the Kingdom of Heaven.
If we can for a moment transfer our attention from the mission field to the conditions at home, we can realise that even in a so-called Christian society the same two-fold work has to be carried on. The Church must not only baptize members into itself but work upon its surroundings. Our own environment has to be continually adapted to the needs of the Christian soul; everything in it that tends to degrade the standard has to be rooted out and everything must be encouraged which will serve to uplift and ennoble. New occasions teach new duties, and the basic Christian virtues find ever-fresh opportunities of expression in order to fit changing circumstances. The good Samaritan may be found today, not kneeling by the side of the wounded traveller, but assisting in social welfare work, labouring on some educational body, toiling in the almoner’s office of some hospital, or merely casting a vote with informed intelligence upon some social matter which is to affect the environment of thousands.
A special word of praise may be said in favour of those who have recovered for the Church an interest in the physical health of the people. So much of our Lord’s time and that of His first disciples was taken up in succouring bodily ailments that it would be paradoxical for the modern Church to have no regard for that particular type of service. A divorce between physical and spiritual healing is unthinkable. Every effort should be made to employ and consecrate the most modern methods known to medical and surgical science. At the same time spiritual healing and consolation should be brought in to assist and reinforce the professional skill of the doctor.
The Kingdom of God must hold sway over the whole of our being, body as well as soul; and it is the function of the Church to do everything possible to bring the totality of man’s personality and the whole of his environment under the sway of Christ. Here indeed is enough and more than enough for all of us to do. What has just been said of bodily healing applies to every skill and profession. There is no gift that cannot be consecrated to this purpose. The feet of the Christian are set in a large room. There is infinite variety and the widest possible range for his activities. The ministry of the word and sacrament in the technical sense may be exercised for the most part through the professional class of the ministry set apart among Church members for this particular duty, but to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God demands everyone’s effort. Work generally known as secular may be as important in this respect as the work of the priest. In any case, this is a call to us all. It gives an enhanced and enriched meaning to the life of any who respond to it. Every man’s profession should be a vocation.
It will be seen from all this that the idea of the Kingdom is much more inclusive than that of the Church. The Church may inspire but it cannot cover or include men’s secular activities; the Kingdom can and should. Parliaments and congresses are not part of the Church’s machinery but they should be as good instruments as the Church itself in preparing the way for the Kingdom, and they might become such if the Church could inspire each and all of its members with the right ideals. They need both to “perceive and know what things they ought to do and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same.” And both needs can be met through the Church’s ministrations.
This may be put in another way by equating the Kingdom of God with Christian civilization. It is the Church’s business in such a civilization to keep the Christian element vigorously alive. It is obvious that this is likely to prove a stupendous task in the present generation. The Christian constituent in “European” civilization is wearing dangerously thin. Hitherto, throughout the history of that civilization, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity have been explicitly or implicitly accepted. From those doctrines, the Christian standard of ethics has naturally followed. Recently, however, it has been widely thought that the hold on Christian ethics might still be retained even though the grasp of Christian dogma were relaxed. Actually the contrary result has followed. A growing indifference to Christian doctrine has led to a re-entry of pagan moral conduct. The most important function of the Church in these days is to redress the balance and reassert the claims of Christian faith and practice.
There is no doubt that success can be ultimately achieved if the Church gives itself wholeheartedly to the task. The world is at the end of its tether. Confusion, disunion, and hatred abound. Crimes of violence increase in number. Youth is out of hand. In America, it is alleged that one marriage out of three ends in the divorce court, and in England a comparatively small population is faced with 50,000 petitions for divorce during the current year. Society knows that it is at the edge of the abyss and hopes against hope for some speedy deliverance from its danger.
The Church of Christ possesses the message of salvation. It has the “linking idea” that can unify the divers aims and ideals of serious men. It can point them to the Kingdom of God as the summum bonum, the goal of all their striving. And it can assert that the first step to the attainment of the Kingdom is to swear allegiance to it oneself. The rule of God must be accepted in my own heart if I am to work for its coming in the world. The Church must emphasize both sides of this truth, stressing the importance not only of the individual but also of society as a whole. It will then become in the world of tomorrow what many a country priest is still in the village community of today, a rallying point and inspirational centre for the many activities, both secular and religious, of its people.
The question how the Church may best set about its task in the social sphere has been exercising the minds of many lately in a special fashion. I have been asked particularly whether the Church ought not to step down into the political arena and make its witness more speedily effective by producing its own political programme. Two alternatives have been suggested, either that we form a Christian Political Party, or that we build up a Council of Christian Action to watch political issues and bring pressure to bear on legislative bodies.
Personally, I am inclined to think that either expedient might result in more harm than good. To follow the example of some of our friends on the Continent and start a political party of our own would at once throw us into opposition to all the existing parties. That would mean abdicating our proper position as the mediators of God’s friendship to man. The Church is not afraid of opposition in its own sphere. We fight to the death against the world, the flesh, and the devil, that is, against self and society deliberately organized apart from God. But in the English-speaking world there is no sign that any Government wishes to be regarded in that light: quite the contrary. So long as there is neither organized anti-religion nor anti-clericalism, it would be a mistake for us to create them by our own action.
Objection to the formation of a Council of Christian Action [This Council, of course, has no reference to the Oxford organization which has recently taken the name of “Christian Action.”] in the sense of political influence rests on rather different ground. It would inevitably involve the formation of a “pressure group,” and such groups are one of the most sinister features of modern politics. The attempt to force members of legislative assemblies to adopt the programme of outside interests is to destroy the representative character of such assemblies. Members are not delegates, forced to repeat unintelligently the shibboleths dictated to them before they enter the assembly. They are representatives, professing the ideals of their electorate in general but free to listen to the argument on the floor of the House and to vote in accordance with their judgment of that argument. No doubt party discipline curtails their freedom to some extent, but the fact that in the life of every parliament some members are found voting against their own side shows to what extent the tradition of true representation is still maintained in the English-speaking world. To do anything from the Christian side to undermine that tradition would, I think, be a grave mistake. For that reason I should myself be opposed in present circumstances to the formation of a Christian pressure group.
Happily, with conditions as they are, it does not seem necessary for us to accept either of the suggested alternatives. English-speaking people are in the fortunate position of having a strong Christian representation in all the political parties. This is very difficult for continental people to understand. I well remember how astonished were a number of German youths at a conference in Kiel to whom I pointed out this very simple factor in the English political situation. They were particularly surprised to hear that there was a very strong body of convinced Christians in the English socialist government. They would have been still more astonished if I had told them that there were even ardent Church people among the Communists. But once they had grasped the fact, they could easily see that it was the function of the Church to strengthen the hands of the Christian members of all the parties rather than to identify itself with any one party or to form a party of its own.
Maurice himself with his Christian Social Movement pointed the way to a better solution of our problem than either of the two suggested. It is to create a vivid interest in political issues among all Christian people. The Church must not let its members be satisfied with building up a cloistered piety for themselves; they must take their part in preparing the way for the Kingdom. And this they can do only if they take sufficient interest in everything that pertains to our communal life. Such organizations as the Industrial Christian Fellowship and the Summer School of Sociology are admirably fitted to carry on this educative work, and the Church should support them with all its power. Thus there will not be wanting a succession of fit persons duly qualified for the service of God in the State who will provide a steady stream of candidates for the elected assemblies. They can then be trusted, whatever party they join, to put the claims of the Kingdom above mere party allegiance and to regard their legislative activities as means for accomplishing the purposes of God.
4 – Conclusion
It is time now to bring this lecture and the series to a close. We have ended, as was almost inevitable, with a particular illustration of that fundamental quality of the Church which it was our duty to expose in the first lecture. The nature of the Church is that of an organism rather than of an organization. It is the Body of Christ and is therefore a living entity, continually at work, acting and reacting upon its environment. It has a structure like every other organism and the permanence of that structure both preserves its identity and enables it to fulfill its allotted task. That task becomes the more arduous and the more necessary the less sympathetic its environment grows. In a semi-pagan world the Church must be up and doing. It does not seek to dominate the secular power but to influence it. The Body of Christ will naturally use the method of love and persuasion followed by the Master Himself. The goal is the Kingdom of God, but, like that Kingdom, the Church is already here as leaven to permeate the whole lump of society. To that task we must dedicate ourselves in every field, knowing that we have a unity and richness of life that cannot be found elsewhere. Christ came that we might have life and that we might have it to the full. It is the Church’s task to continue His work of drawing all men within the radiance of that glory. We can address ourselves to it with a good heart knowing that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.
As we succeed in making people understand the true nature of the Church, and induce them to take their share in its ordered life and activity, we shall break down the prevailing superstition that Christianity is a mere sentiment and that everything beyond that is an imposition of ecclesiasticism. We shall arouse them to the glory of membership in Christ’s Body and the honour of continuing His work. While we strengthen individual capacity, we shall destroy selfish aims and set a premium upon life in community. In other words, we shall repeat in our generation the inspiring work done by Maurice in his.
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